New Bedford’s Whaling Wonderland

“Can I touch it?” my four year old niece asks upon encountering a whale sculpture at the entrance of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Samantha’s question is the obvious one for her age, and luckily this is not a stuffy, hands off type of museum but an interactive experience that brings the South Coast’s whaling history to life.

The truth is that when it comes to history, I generally possess the intellectual curiosity of a q-tip. Moreover, I prefer to satisfy this limited need for historical knowledge with books or documentary films. In other words, I am not a good museum person. My niece Samantha, however, may be an emerging museum aficionado.

Upon entering the museum, we are greeted by enormous whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling that look as though they could be swimming alongside the ghost ship from Pirates of the Caribbean. Samantha gave the skeletal display its due “wow!” and soon after spied the harpoon tossing game located in the museum’s cafeteria just beyond the ticket counter. The game consists of tossing foam harpoons through two hoops of varying size and height. It nicely occupied our time while Auntie Becky purchased tickets and resulted in only minimal harpoon to child contact. In lieu of tickets, visitors darn New Bedford Whaling Museum stickers on their shirts. Stickers! The museum just scored another point with the four year old faction.

The exhibits offer plenty of visual and tactile experiences for youngsters. Multi-media displays, artwork and artifacts tell the story of the New Bedford Whaling trade with a focus on the human experience and humans’ impact on this mighty creature. Not surprisingly, the exhibits elicited many questions from Samantha.

“Auntie, who is that?”, “What is she doing?”, “What is his name?” and my literacy loving favorite, “Auntie, what does that say?” as she connected the images with captions and text on each display, developing her print awareness skills right in front of my eyes.

Eco-awareness is another take away for children here. At the exhibit displaying the sad ramifications of human behavior on sea life, Sam tries to wrap her arms around the flipper of a 3-D floor to ceiling whale caught up in nylon netting and mournfully declares, “Poor whale.” Indeed.

We wondered at giant scallop shells, we danced to Azorean folk music, we rang ship bells, we lay in whalers’ cots, we saw the 130 terra cotta fish swimming on the museum terrace, we tried approximately a dozen of the seats in the museum theater, and we and looked through giant binoculars at New Bedford Harbor. Finally, we discovered the preschooler’s pièce de résistance…a near life size model of a whaling ship called the “Lagoda”!

Auntie patrol was put on high alert as Sam scampered up the stairs of the 89 foot half scale ship, the largest ship model in the world. There were ship wheels to steer, windows through which to peer and see below deck, anchors to touch, sails at full mast to admire, blubber boiling cauldron doors to open and shut, and locked chests.

After trying to open one said chest with my car key, house key, and post office box key to no avail, Sam considered the situation a moment and asked, “Auntie, where are the eye patches?” After a brief explanation of the difference between a whaler and a pirate, of which she cared not one bit, Sam scurried of to explore some more.

This wonderful string of exploration, questioning, and discovery continued for two hours until we (meaning the adults) tired out and convinced Sam it was time to go, coaxing her towards the exit with the promise of ice cream.

We touch everything we could on the way out of the museum. At the museum’s exit is a wooden whale’s tale on which visitors add their admission stickers to the collection of those who have gone before them. As we leave the museum, we give a last farewell to our whale sculpture friend with promises to return again.


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Angela Boffi

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