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The Eye of the Universe

Captain Absalom F. Boston, ca. 1835
Unknown Prior-
Hamblin School artist. 
Oil on board, 141/2 x 105/8 in. 
Gift of Sampson D. Pompey, 1906.56.1.

One of the island’s signature products is tangential to the Whaling industry but on full display in the museum: Nantucket Lightship Baskets. In a brief summary of this artistic medium’s history, Russell explains, “Because the waters around Nantucket are so shoaly, there were a number of lightships to aid navigation. Chaps on the ships would literally weave away the time by crafting baskets. Later, the practice moved onto the island itself, where it has remained a cottage industry for over 100 years.” While the baskets today are mostly seen as works of art or decoration, they do have utilitarian roots. “Like many products, they served a practical purpose,” says Russell. The Whaling Museum is home to the largest, most extensive collection of baskets on the island, but the nearby Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum, Russell notes, “Also has a fine collection of over 60 baskets.” The Whaling Museum maintains a few hundred pieces, some of which are 120-130 years old and are of various styles and forms. While Russell says the specific construction materials varied within a range of pliable items such as grasses and fine wood, artisans generally weave the baskets using wooden molds. Some examples are quite small and “beautifully intricate,” while other baskets are much larger and “more durable.” Many feature ornate ivory carvings attached to the handles or elsewhere. Russell says, “We are constantly asking how to best steward our collection in order to showcase only the very best.” 

While many artifacts in the Whaling Museum served as tools or other items for practical use, one collection, and perhaps the most iconic representation of the whaling era, generally had a different purpose. “Scrimshaw really is an exception,” says Russell, who explains that its chief function was artistic. “I find it particularly interesting that these naive, untrained people aboard whaling vessels produced such incredible works of art, often using just a knife and soot. It shows that wherever people are, regardless of background, there’s a creative urge; creativity finds a way to express itself.” The Whaling museum has a variety of scrimshaw types in its collection, from narrative pieces that tell stories of the hunt to more pictorial illustrations, often based on images from magazines. Different parts of whale ivory also categorize scrimshaw types; sailors commonly used teeth, “pan” bones cut from the jaw, and other flat bones. “They would use sharkskin as sandpaper to prepare the surfaces,” says Russell. “Sometimes it would take weeks, even months to cut, shape, and complete a work. Scrimshaw pieces were labors of love, and the sailors sent them home to their wives and other loved ones.” Although most works of scrimshaw art are purely decorative, a few subcategories did serve some purpose. The artisans often created jagging wheels—tools for crimping the edges of pie crusts—and intricate swifts for winding yarn. “There’s a great deal of fancy and creativity in these items; they’re quite ornate,” notes Russell. “I’m in awe at the detail; it’s absolutely incredible. We have magnifying glasses at the museum so that visitors can see, and it’s possible to identify the specific vessels in many of the pieces.” 

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