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Mystic Seaport opens exhibit that looks at whales from a new perspective

Mystic — Mystic Seaport opened a new $850,000 exhibit Saturday that was years in the making and offers a look at the changed relationship between whales and humans.

While the museum has done many exhibits over the years on whaling and its recently restored whaling ship the Charles W. Morgan, the museum’s outgoing director of exhibits Jonathan Shay said those exhibits focused on the business of whaling, the killing of whales and the experience of those aboard whaling ships.

But today, he said, human perception of whales has changed, and they are no longer viewed as a prized commodity but rather a treasured part of the natural world that should be protected.

“Before we were talking about the how and why of killing and processing whales. We never focused on the whales. Now we’re talking about the relationship between whales and people, not just humans killing whales,” Shay said. “In the 19th century we thought of whales in one way, but now we think of them in a whole different way.”

Shay said the effort to create the “Voyaging in the Wake of the Whalers” exhibit in 4,400-square-foot space in the Stillman Building, began by talking to scientists, scholars, artists and musicians.

“We had done plenty of exhibits on whales and whaling. We wanted to know ‘What can we do that’s new?’ ” he said last week while employees put the finishing touches on the displays. “Figuring out the stories was the hard part. Once that is figured out, it drives the design, it drives the fabrication. Fabrication and construction (which began this winter) is the easy part,” he said.

Shay, who has worked at the museum for 31 years, called the exhibit the most well- funded and most comprehensive project “we’ve ever done at Mystic Seaport.”

“I think of this as the capstone (to my career),” he said.

Visitors are welcomed to the exhibit by a 20-foot by 12-foot mural with a mesh screen. The original image is of whales swimming gracefully, but when the lights come up it changes to a whaleboat harpooning a whale.

“We purposely put this up because it encapsulates the changing perception of the natural world,” Shay said.

The exhibit, which features many artifacts never on display before and interactive information stations, has a timeline and models of the Morgan, the products that came from whaling, how they were measured and their quality determined, and whaling revenue for owners, crewmen and the industry as a whole.

Across the room the focus is on the life of whales -- artists renderings of them, an entire set of sperm whale teeth, a few massive vertebrae, balleen and a graphic that compares whale and human anatomy. Across the way is a display about the life of humans on whaling ships, photographs and paintings of several famous whalemen and photographs of gravestones of men who died while whaling who are now buried in Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford, Mass., the Morgan’s homeport.

There is also a display on the cultural exchange that took place as Yankee whalemen interacted with people around the world and then spread the knowledge about the people they met when they returned home.

A large, three-dimensional projection globe features three films including the Morgan’s first voyage and Peter George a Mashantucket Pequot whaleman.

Visitors can climb inside a lookout and gaze over to a wall where spouts rise from the water. There are also displays on scientific study of whales, industrial whaling that decimated their population in the early 20th century and whaling in popular culture. The exhibit concludes with displays on the restoration of the Morgan and its 38th voyage last summer to historic ports around New England. That voyage culminated with the Morgan sailing amongst whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Cape Cod.

An audio room decorated with stained glass pieces, created by one of the artists who chronicled the restoration of the Morgan, features actors reading first-person accounts of whaling as well as the songs of whales intertwined with those of human sea chanteys.

“We don’t want to push a perspective on people,” Shay said about the exhibit. “We want people to examine their feelings,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

@joewojtas

 

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