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Exhibit covers Provincetown’s whaling history

According to Amy Whorf McGuiggan, the exhibit’s guest curator, the height of the whaling era in America was around the 1850s, but the industry began to gain steam in Provincetown earlier—during the 1820s. In the 1840s, Provincetown whaling reached a plateau, Whorf McGuiggan adds, but remained viable, with upwards of 50 whalers embarking from the town. Though constructed in New Bedford, the Charles W. Morgan was officially registered in Provincetown near the end of its working career.

During the Charles W. Morgan’s recent tour of the Cape and Islands and points beyond, Stephen Borkowski had the rare opportunity to sail aboard the historic wooden whaling vessel as a reward for the commitment he has shown to the study of Provincetown’s history.

Through artwork, artifacts, photographs, and the screening of the only film ever made of an actual whaling voyage, the exhibit tells the story of whaling in Provincetown—from the Native Americans’ use of drift whales for food and fuel to the golden age of whaling in the mid-19th century, and through the industry’s decline and the varied factors that led to it.

Displayed around the spacious exhibit room are more than 20 different harpoons, lances, and other tools that were used to hunt, capture and process whales. Other artifacts include a full-sized model of a juvenile whale’s fluke or tail, whale oil lamps, a ship’s Bible, and a logbook, which lists in detail one whaler’s daily activities, including whale sightings and hunts. Brief biographies on several local ships’ captains provide information about their lives, successes, and tragedies on the high seas. Also displayed are intricate pieces of scrimshaw artwork, created by whale men during downtime on their long voyages.

During the Charles W. Morgan’s recent tour of the Cape and Islands and points beyond, Stephen Borkowski had the rare opportunity to sail aboard the historic wooden whaling vessel as a reward for the commitment he has shown to the study of Provincetown’s history.

Another unique element is the one-of-a-kind 1916 film, “Whaling Days,” which was shot aboard the whaler, Viola. Commissioned by whaling captain John Atkins Cook, the film captures scenes from Cook’s final voyage. One of several generations of Provincetown whalers, Cook got his start in the industry as a harpooner and over the years survived a shipwreck, a mutiny, and other hazards to become one of the region’s most famous whalers; at one point, he was even a co-owner of the Charles W. Morgan. When his film was completed, Cook traveled to many local libraries to screen it and give lectures on the whaling industry.

The silent, black and white film—about an hour in length—plays on a loop in one corner of the exhibit room. Dave Drabkin, a volunteer who worked with Whorf McGuiggan to put the exhibit together, says the film, which depicts the hunt, capture, and rendering of a whale, is very graphic—and perhaps it’s better there’s no sound. It has been a very popular feature though, Drabkin says. “People sit there glued to it.”

An important part of the whaling story is the inherent danger involved in the profession; many of those who set out on whaling trips never returned. For example, after Cook filmed his final voyage, he sold the Viola. In September of 1918, the ship, captained by Joseph Luis, departed on a voyage out of New Bedford, and neither the captain, nor his family or the 24 crewmembers aboard, were ever heard from again. “And there are a million of those stories,” Whorf McGuiggan says. “Hundreds of people from Provincetown died in pursuit of this livelihood. It’s startling to see the toll it had on families in town. Every year from 1820 to 1920, there is some tragic story—some more tragic than others.”



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