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Nantucket's New Whaling Museum

By Cecil Barron Jensen
This article was originally written in the spring of 2005.

It's fearsome to contemplate the skeleton of a sperm whale: with menacing ivory teeth, the massive skull, and, forty-six feet up into the ceiling, the tip of its spine. It's almost as if the whale is swimming, twisting its head in the water, flicking its tail, and considering you, not the other way round. It has to be one of the most dramatic articulations of a whale skeleton offered by a museum anywhere, and it is the centerpiece of the Nantucket Historical Association's new Whaling Museum.

After two years of restoration and construction, the Whaling Museum opens its doors to the public in June. Featured are a restored 1847 candle factory, expanded top-quality exhibition space, a fully accessible rooftop observation deck overlooking Nantucket harbor, and the sperm whale skeleton.

"The skeleton is intended to startle visitors a little," concedes Niles Parker, the NHA's Robyn and John Davis curator. "It is viewed up close and in a dynamic position, not simply 'flying' overhead as in so many other museum installations. We want to give people a true sense of its size and power-to imagine themselves as eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Nantucket whalers."

On the walls of the museum's Gosnell Hall, where the skeleton is displayed, are portraits of the men - masters and mates - who led the hunt for whales. The NHA's impressive collection of whaling tools including harpoons, lances, and cutting-in tools and a fully-rigged whaleboat are vividly displayed.

"We are so fortunate to have this skeleton," said curator of education Kirstin Gamble. "Telling the history of whaling has always been a central part of our programming at the Whaling Museum. Now, with improved audio-visual displays and the dramatic articulation of the whale, the story takes on additional drama."

The forty-six foot bull whale died on January 1, 1998 after floundering for two days in the surf off the eastern end of the island. Since it was a holiday, scores of islanders flocked to Low Beach at 'Sconset to catch sight of the creature. Photographs of the day reveal hundreds of people lined up beyond the cordoned-off whale. "It's such a rich Nantucket story," said Parker. "It was the sperm whale that put Nantucket on the map. During the height of Nantucket's whaling era, men left the island in droves to hunt this whale; because of it the island enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most prosperous ports in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It's not a stretch to say that because of the sperm whale the island continues to attract international attention as a visitor destination."

After the whale died on the beach, scientists from across the region came to Nantucket to examine it. As they are deep-sea dwelling creatures, it is rare for one to actually die on land. More often, they die and then wash up on beaches - often in poor condition. "There were scientists and whale experts on island for days," said Parker. "A team from the New England Aquarium performed the necropsy and other groups helped the NHA's staff and island volunteers strip the whale of its blubber and remove the oil from its huge headcase." The whale was then buried for several months to permit the flesh to degrade.

The following spring, sections of the skeleton were immersed in Nantucket harbor in massive cages, allowing fish and other marine creatures to aid in the cleaning process. "When it came out of the water, the bones were remarkably white," said Paker. "But within a month, oil had started to seep out, yellowing the bones. It gave us a sense of how rich the sperm whale's bones are with oil." In fact, whale bones have been known to drip oil for decades.

Last year, the NHA turned to whale expert Dan DenDanto, of Bar Harbor, Maine, to complete the cleaning of the bones and prepare the skeleton for articulation. DenDanto spent eight months cleaning the skeleton - including boiling the massive skull in a specially designed tank over an open fire. "The bones were degreased, bleached and preserved to bolster their integrity and give them a cleanable surface," explained DenDanto.

"I've done this kind of work seven times before on large whales, but the sperm whale was the greasiest and most complex one yet. It set a new precedent for me regarding scale and depth of the project. The bones of a sperm whale are large and robust because they have to withstand the pressures and weights of deep sea diving. The design elements were challenging too. The bar was set high but the results are some pretty dramatic views," said DenDanto.

While in Maine, DenDanto built the steel frame for the spine - a central support for the whale skeleton. Then in December, Dan and his team spent the better part of a month installing the whale-fitting it perfectly into the space provided by design architect Martin Sokoloff.

"The curve in the ceiling of Gosnell Hall is evocative of waves, as well as the diving position of the whale," said Parker. "Another great design element is that you can see the whale from many different vantage points throughout the museum. If you move to another part of the building and learn a little bit more about the business or benefits of the whaling industry, you return to look at the skeleton in a new way."

Indeed, throughout the building visitors are remarkably close to significant, large artifacts including an 1849 Fresnel Lens used in Sankaty Light and the restored workings of Nantucket's 1881 town clock. "The objects are not seen from a distance; people are invited to get close enough to really examine them," said Sokoloff. Although large, airy spaces are a feature of the museum, these intimate views may be the most memorable.

"We have many opposites at play - light and dark, circles and squares, curves and straight lines, and traditional and contemporary," said Sokoloff. "An underlying theme throughout the building contrasts the old and the new. Our philosophy was to be clear about the new elements of the building - the new is new, not to be confused with the old." This is especially true in the museum's 1847 Candle Factory, where modern glass barriers on the catwalk stand against the building's original brick walls and wooden beams.

"The restoration of the candle factory could well be the best architectural story of the new Whaling Museum," said Parker. "We were able to peel away most structural additions to reveal much of the building's original fabric."

The candle factory was built by the Mitchell family immediately following Nantucket's Great Fire in 1846 and close to the end of the island's whaling era. Less than two years later, island businessmen William Hadwen and Nathaniel Barney purchased the manufactory and continued to operate it as a candleworks until the end of whaling in the 1860s. The structure served as a warehouse until its conversion into the offices of the New England Steamship Company in the 1870s. In 1919, the candleworks was outfitted to use as storage and housed an antiques shop. In 1929, the building was purchased and converted into the NHA's Whaling Museum, and remained as such for more than seventy years.

"One of the highlights of the restoration was being able to fully reveal for the first time the building's original beam press," said Parker. The two-story press operated with a system of pulleys and was used to extract oil from the spermaceti. Today it is the only beam press in the world in its original location.

Also revealed is the base of the building's tryworks furnace. A solid mass of stone, the base was hidden behind the walls of the former Whaling Museum. "Finding the base in such good condition was a surprise," said Parker. "With the help of an architectural historian, we were able to analyze and preserve the foundation mass. Now we are in an excellent position to understand how the building functioned. We can also tell the story of the whaling industry's impact on the on the people who stayed at home and profited from it."

"In addition, it's an excellent way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Whaling Museum by concentrating on the building's original use and sharing the richer story of Nantucket whaling with our visitors," said Parker.

When visiting the Whaling Museum, the rooftop observation deck is not to be missed. Positioned to see all of the harbor and much of the town, the deck offers spectacular views of the island. From this vantage point, it is easy to imagine Nantucket as a bustling whaling port centered on the mighty sperm whale.

Cecil Barron Jensen is a freelance writer and editor of Historic Nantucket, the membership magazine of the Nantucket Historical Association. She lives full time on Nantucket with her husband and three daughters. This article was originally written in the spring of 2005.