Exhibit covers Provincetown’s whaling history
The exhibit also addresses whaling’s decline, which in Provincetown was underway by 1870. Due to factors—including the Civil War’s impact and the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania—by the early years of the 20th century the whaling industry had virtually dried up around the country.
The subject of what’s happening with whales—and those who research the massive mammals—today is also covered. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, for one, is focused on marine research, specializing in rescuing whales that have become tangled in ropes, nets, and other manmade gear. Interestingly, some of the tools the organization uses to disentangle whales look very similar to those used a century ago to kill the leviathans; the points are just turned around.
It is also important to note that Provincetown is a popular spot for whale watch expeditions today, as the waters of Stellwagen Bank off the coast are a feeding ground for whales. “What was an industry focused on their harvest,” McDonagh says, “is now an industry focused on their beauty.”
In piecing the exhibit together, Whorf McGuiggan and Drabkin became immersed in months of research, sorting through tens of thousands of items in the museum’s archives. The two pored over photo albums; they found a ship’s register and pages from a whaler’s journal and even tracked down artwork and borrowed pieces from other museums. “We went from thinking ‘we don’t have very much,’ to ‘we need a bigger museum,’” Drabkin says.
In addition to his role on the historical commission, Borkowski is also a trustee of the museum and chairs its collections committee. He has a keen interest in history and has been researching the subject of Provincetown’s whaling heritage—and its connection to New Bedford, Nantucket, and other whaling ports in the Northeast—for the past five years.
“I felt that our connection to the whaling industry and other communities was lost, not completely, but not examined or highlighted as richly as it has been in other places such as New Bedford and Connecticut,” Borkowski says. “We are not often identified in that ‘golden triangle’ of whaling towns, when in fact we were the third-most productive in terms of sending whaling voyages out.” This new research the museum has conducted, he says, will do a lot to help change that perception. “The exhibit,” Borkowski says, “is just the start of the reclamation of Provincetown’s connection to whaling.”
To complete this fascinating personal journey, Borkowski shares a few more details of his sail aboard the Charles W. Morgan. He says the 113-foot ship constantly shifts and moves in the water, and sounds of all description emanate continually from its masts and sails. Borkowski wondered what it must have been like to travel the open ocean in the dark of night—and of the long length of the journeys. “I’m doing this for seven hours,” he recalls thinking. “There were men who did this for two and one-half years.”
Also, there is the matter of the whales’ majestic size and power. “One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of [whaling],” Borkowski says. “I tried to imagine what it was like to pursue a creature that’s stronger and larger than the ship you are on.”
Borkowski’s sail took place on a Sunday in July. Another group went out on the ship the day before, and they came across some whales. To experience what it might have been like for whalers a century ago, or to get a little closer to these behemoths of the deep, the crew even launched a whaleboat. In the 19th century, the occupants of these small, nimble boats would have gripped harpoons and other weapons as they closed in on their massive prey; on this recent trip, the riders were similarly loaded—with mobile phones and cameras.
The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum is at 1 High Pole Hill Road and is open daily through November 30, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit pilgrim-monument.org.
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