The New Bedford Whaling Museum has successfully struck a balance between history and natural science that fully explores the complex and often bloody relationship between Earth’s two most dominant mammals.
The museum’s crown jewel is its entry hall. Suspended from the rafters are three massive whale skeletons, their bodies curved and flexed as though still swimming. (A separate exhibit, From the Deep, displays the skeleton of a sperm whale.) The head of the largest, a 65-foot juvenile blue whale, arcs downward, letting visitors come face to face with the leviathan. The newest addition is a female northern right whale (an extremely endangered species), killed when she collided with a ship’s propeller in 2004. Mounted inside her is the skeleton of her unborn calf.
Curled upon itself as though still in the womb, the fetal skeleton bears gaps and imperfections where the bones had not yet ossified–cut short in the act of creation. Simultaneously beautiful and provocative, the exhibit quietly pushes through a visitor’s awe at standing among these giants to send a clear message: Life is fragile for these animals, even in their largest forms.
The museum is careful not to cross the line between fact and activism but is quick to point out that whaling captains were the first to warn the world of the perils of overhunting. A new exhibit, titled From Pursuit to Preservation and debuting in July, will complement the museum’s skeletons, models, artwork, and other collections, telling the story of how New England went from being the whale’s greatest scourge to one of its staunchest allies.
New Bedford Whaling Museum, 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, MA. 508-997-0046; whalingmuseum.org.
Open January-May Monday-Saturday 9-4, Sunday 12-4, 9-9 every second Thursday of the month; open June-December daily 9-5, 9-9 every second Thursday of the month. $10, students/seniors $9, ages 6-14 $6, ages 5 and under free.
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