What to do in New England: visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts, on the trail of Hermann Melville and his novel “Moby Dick; or The Whale”. Info, cues and tips about the museum and a small guidebook about New Bedford.
New Bedford is an ancient town of the Bristol County, in Massachusetts.
It lies sweetly on the banks of the Acushnet River where it gets prepared flowing onto Buzzards Bay.
It was founded in mid-1600 by a small community of colons coming from England, after have bought the land directly from the local Native Wampanoag. The town, strong of its privileged geographical position, developed quickly and became the main mall of the country for the Whale Hunt.
A fleet of about 400 Whalers – besides a consistent number of mercantile ships towards the east – that from New Bedford followed the most difficult and furthest routes to chase and catch whales, blue whales and cachalots which extract the very precious “whale oil from…vital lymph to light the Lighthouses of America and of the world”.
New Bedford’s fame as “Whaler town” was increased by the fact that right here on January 3rd, 1841 Herman Melville got aboard the Acushnet Whaler towards the Pacific Ocean for a voyage of about 18 months: this experience influenced a lot the writing of his most famous novel “Moby Dick; or the Whale”. It also contributed to make the town an important stage for a wonderful literary itinerary through Massachusetts tied to the life and the works by Melville.
“Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw;
whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke-look ye,
whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys”
(Moby Dick; or The Whale)
If you are fond of marine biology and big cetaceous, but also of American history and literature, you cannot absolutely miss the visit to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
An important passage, if you are visiting the wonderful and variegated New England and want to enrich your experience exploring one among the most complete museums of the country dedicated to the study of the marine mammals, of the deeds and the cultural and social legacy of the Whale Hunt. This activity had its apex all over 1800.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum was opened to the public in 1910 and today is one among the most ancient museums in the country still working.
The incipit of this exciting trail cannot help but being the view from the balcony of the huge hall on the three giant cetaceous’ skeletons exhibited in suspension: a southern right whale with its fetus, a blue whale and a humpback whale.
The tour keep going on through the rooms at the ground level where the cetaceous and their primary features are told: there you can find out the origin of the Whale Hunt – traditionally tied to the culture of the Native Americans – besides the tools used for the hunt, the technique for the extraction of the precious oil and every difficulty this activity involved over time, highlighting the high number of victims caused by the marine cetaceous themselves that – rebelling to the catch – most of the time drag men and ships on the ocean bed.
In the following rooms you discover the copy (1:2 scale) dating back to 1916 of the Lagoda Whaler – where it is possible to get on board, too – besides an exposition dedicated to the migratory routes from the Azores Islands as far as New Bedford. And an original and unusual exhibition of objects – the so-called Scrimshaw – produced over time by the creative fantasy (and the needs) of the man with the whale’s bones and teeth.
The tour ends in the rooms at the second floor, entirely dedicated to the history of the town and the navigation, with an interesting collection of paintings, furniture and curious vintage objects.
Reckon at least three hours to see everything peacefully. And the chance to take part into one of the valid guided tours planned by the museum, if you are fond of the subject.
On the New Bedford Whaling Museum official website, you can find any info and opening hours updated according to the period of your visit, besides a list of the interesting temporary exhibitions hosted by the facility.
A good part of the New Bedford old town is included in the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.
Once ended the tour of the Whaling Museum reach the near Seamen’s Bethel. It is an ancient chapel dating back to 1832, described in details by Melville at the beginning of the novel “Moby Dick; or The Whale”: still today every year – on January 3rd – on the occasion of the celebration of the departure date of the author on board the Acushnet, a proper public reading marathon of the novel takes place.
Spend some time to explore also the neighboring streets as far as State Pier Maritime Terminal to admire the wonderful vintage buildings: the US Custom House – the old custom of the town – and the outsides of the Rodman Candleworks, an ancient candle factory (dating back to 1810) produced with the precious oil of spermaceti, a dense liquid present in the cachalots’ skull.
My tip is to dedicate a whole day to New Bedford – to enjoy peacefully the attractions of the old town and the venues of the Pier – and so stay overnight at the very central New Bedford Harbor Hotel.
An Ascend Hotel Collection born inside a building of the 17th century in Union Street, literally just a stone’s throw from the New Bedford Whaling Museum on foot. Modern and bright accommodations, with all comforts. The hotel’s restaurant can be a valid alternative if you don’t want to go out. Very good dishes and a variegated menu.
Usually an abundant breakfast, the near parking – 8$ with valet parking – and Wi-Fi are included.
For an unforgettable seafood dinner with lobsters, mussels, lobster roll and littlenecks, I have to recommend The Black Whale Kitchen and Bar at 106, MacArthur Dr, directly on the Pier.
Remember to always book well in advance at the weekends and in high season.
If you want to stay in Union Street, I recommend Green Bean for a quick lunch, a café (very good Espresso) that serves salads and fresh sandwiches. Or the very good mixed soups at Destination Soups.