Drawing by Nickerson of the Essex whaleship attack
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Whaleship Essex Exhibit at NHA

Drawing by Nickerson of the Essex whaleship attack
Drawing by Nickerson of the Essex whaleship attack

On August 14, 1819, the whaleship Essex sailed out of Nantucket Harbor— Captain George Pollard, one of the youngest ever to command a whaling ship, anticipated a successful two-and-a-half year voyage; its crew of twenty hoped for greasy luck.

Their experience was anything but lucky. Fifteen months after the start of their journey, in November of 1820, the crew of the whaleship Essex escaped in three small whaleboats after a large sperm whale, “distracted with rage and fury,” rammed into and destroyed their ship.

Stove by a Whale: 20 Men, 3 Boats, 96 Days, this season’s main exhibition mounted by The Nantucket Historical Association (NHA), opens to the public on Friday, April 24, in the McCausland Gallery in the Whaling Museum, 13 Broad St.

Voyage of the whaleship, Essex Visitors will follow the crew of the Essex as they attempt to sail thousands of miles across the Pacific to safety with very limited food and water. Stove by a Whale will bring the story of the Essex to light like never before, featuring interactive displays, multimedia elements, and historic artifacts throughout the museum gallery.

The gallery experience begins on Nantucket during its whaling heyday. Visitors will explore islands in the Pacific and see how the survivors’ tragic tale has been retold time and again in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, by historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his bestselling book In the Heart of the Sea, and in the soon-to-be released film version of In the Heart of the Sea by Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard.

“There’s no denying that the story of the Essex is a huge tragedy,” says Michael R. Harrison, NHA Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator. “What we really want people to understand is that these men were not lost; they were not stranded—they were professional sailors with a certain set of skills who were put into a situation and tried to use their skills to get themselves to safety. They were overmatched by the circumstances in the end, but the really impressive thing is that they were able to try and rescue themselves. In this new NHA exhibition, we show the ways in which they did that, the decisions that they had to make, and the outcomes of those decisions.”

Owen Chase, first mate of the whaleship, Essex
Owen Chase, first mate of the whaleship, Essex

Interactive elements in the Stove by a Whale exhibition include a touchscreen that allows visitors to scroll through digitized historic whaling logbooks dating back to the time of the Essex, a recreated life-size whaleboat that visitors can “board” and sit in, and character cards portraying Essex crew members. In addition, there will be exclusive film props and costumes from the set of Ron Howard’s film In the Heart of the Sea that will open in theaters in December 2015. The props are on exclusive loan from Warner Bros. Pictures and have not been made available to the public before this exhibition.

Stove by a Whale exhibition also features the only known remaining historic artifacts from the disaster, including the small piece of twine that Essex crew member Benjamin Lawrence made during the three months he spent on the whaleboat after the sinking of the ship.

“There’s a little bit of stagecraft to the exhibition,” says Harrison. “We certainly have objects in cases, but we’re also doing a lot with wall murals, banners, and projections. We’re hoping to create an atmosphere and a mood that evokes the middle of the Pacific, in order to better convey the drama of the tragedy that we are talking about. For objects, we’re really excited to be able to present the only surviving artifacts related to this disaster, as well as very significant and rare objects from our collection that illuminate life on Nantucket at the time the Essex sailed.” Some of these NHA artifacts include historic paintings, logbooks, manuscripts, scrimshaw, ceremonial objects from the Marquesas Islands, and more.

“Nantucket is the ‘home’ of this story and the home of Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the best-selling book In the Heart of the Sea,” says Bill Tramposch, NHA Gosnell Executive Director. “The NHA is proud to be collaborating with Nat and Warner Bros. as we tell the tale once again, this time using the objects that remain from the disaster, props from Ron Howard’s upcoming film, and a state-of-the-art exhibition that describes the world of the Essex. In addition, we will be offering a long list of summer activities pertaining to Nantucket’s whaling history and this story, including the official In the Heart of the Sea daily walking tour that begins on Memorial Day weekend.”

The exhibition Stove by a Whale: 20 Men, 3 Boats, 96 Days will be on view through winter 2016 during regular Whaling Museum hours, which for the springtime are daily from 11 am to 4 pm.

The 2015 Members Opening Celebration for the exhibition will take place on the evening of Thursday, May 21, at 6 pm and is open to all current NHA members.

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