After visiting various maritime museums and centres, I have been thinking a lot about the limbo of objects.
There is an interesting balance between representation and remains at Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and the Sea. A sense of ‘reproduction’ soaked the village, somewhere in the blurred line between quaint and kitsch. But this is of course a real place, exposing the maritime activities it once lived from, it is now an open air museum for the public. The research centre is all about preservation away from public eyes. Anyone can book an appointment and have limited access to their massive collection of objects, from whale eyeballs to compasses, ship models to uniforms.
Carefully arranged in drawers and shelves, these objects have now only one more function: to exist as they are, to not deteriorate any further. To remain. Their original function, whatever it was, it has now become obsolete or outperformed by new technologies and new objects. They are signposts to the past, with their primary user changed from the whaler to the researcher.
Some of these objects will go for long or short periods on display in the public rooms of a museum. The loose bones that rest on the shelves in the research centre will be orderly put back together to form the full skeleton of a blue, a sperm or a humpback whale, and hang from the ceiling to welcome visitors from their new artificial ‘natural habitat’.
New Bedford is a sea city, ‘the whaling city’ to be precise, that’s its nickname. It is now the number one commercial fishing port in America. Signs of its whaling past are not just everywhere, but also celebrated. Street names, shops, monuments and of course buildings. The Whaling Museum is the biggest in the world. It is fantastic. By the time you get to their enormous scrimshaw collection you may be in the brink of being whaled out. There is just that much. Besides the whaling, I really enjoyed the temporary exhibition ‘Arctic Visions’, an exhibition based around one single artifact: a beautiful, giant leather bound book with the same title, by William Bradford. The gorgeously embossed elephant folio recounts a three-month journey along the Western coast of Greenland aboard the Panther; a 325-ton sealing ship and it was published in 1873. Departing from St. John’s Newfoundland on July 3, 1869, the voyage was organized by Fairhaven artist William Bradford (1823-1892) solely for “purposes of art.” The book is filled with great photographs of arctic local people and landscapes, specially icebergs, which are becoming an increasingly interesting objects for Lorna and me. I felt quite privileged that our project has allowed us to visit these very important exhibits. I felt my intrigue with and attraction to whales reaffirmed and renewed and I can foresee that whales will be yet reappearing in my work.
I still don’t know how I feel about objects in museums. There is something precious and sad about this limbo of ‘preservation’ between their functional past and their contemplative future. I also don’t know what draws Lorna and myself towards past relationships with the sea, towards the archive, towards the safety of the museum. Perhaps as artists we feel more connected to the realities of the researchers than to that of the whalers or fishermen. Personally, perhaps the sea in its vastness is just too scary, too ever-changing, and too-present for me to even attempt to explore it in my work. The sea acts as a screen in which I see no past of future. Looking at the sea from objects and museums seems like a more manageable place to start…
These are a few images from New Bedford Whaling Museum: