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Exhibition sets sail with the Charles W. Morgan

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published May 13. 2014 4:00AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Staff at the Mystic Seaport set up the traveling Charles W. Morgan exhibit on the Seaport green on April 29.

When the Charles W. Morgan sails from port to port, it will be greeted by throngs of people - and by an exhibit that will follow the whaleship's journey.

Mystic Seaport has developed this exhibit that will travel to each new location - New London, New Bedford and Boston - and set up right by where the vessel will dock.

It's a multifaceted work, with everything from a video about the Morgan to a performance titled "Moby-Dick in Minutes" that does, in fact, boil the epic tale down to less than 10 minutes.

The most eye-catching component, though, has to be a 50-foot-long inflatable sperm whale. The creature, dubbed Spouter and made of vinyl-covered nylon, will stand atop a 6-foot pedestal.

It sets up in two minutes and is inflated via a fan secreted in the pedestal.

"It's kind of a spectacle in itself," says Jeff Crewe, supervisor of exhibits/exhibit designer at Mystic Seaport.

That's not all. Visitors can jot down their own thoughts, memories or questions about whales on a round piece of paper that they can then hang on a chicken-wire humpback whale in a piece titled "What Bubbles Up." (Humpback whales blow "bubble nets" to surround and confuse schools of small fish. The whales then rise to the surface as they herd and engulf their prey.)

Local nonprofits will be on site, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will showcase information about research they're doing on whales - and will offer activities like making a whale hat.

The seaport is employing a few familiar elements, too, things that it does well and that visitors respond to, says Elysa Engelman, Mystic Seaport exhibits researcher/developer. One tent, for instance, will feature a trades demo, with a cooper and a shipsmith doing their work. Chantey performers will sing. Role-players will portray people from the 1800s and early 1900s who had whaling connections.

The 20,000-square-foot exhibit will be loaded on two trucks to travel, and it will take one day to set up.

Seaport employees worked with each other and with outside experts - maritime historians, scientists, art historians - to determine the four core themes around which the exhibit and programs would be built.

The first theme was something Mystic Seaport hadn't tackled in a major way before: the changing perceptions about whales.

Engelman says, "From the time when the Morgan was built in 1841 to where we are today, dominant American ideas about whether it's okay to hunt whales or not have changed dramatically. So we wanted to be able to talk about those changes and when they happened and why they happened - and also allow people to put themselves onto that trajectory and to realize that attitudes might change again."

The second theme is perils and profits.

"Nobody was out there killing whales for fun," Engelman says. "There was a real economic use for them."

Instead of kerosene or the electric lights we have now, people during the whaling era got light from whale oil lamps and spermaceti candles. Factories used whale oil for lubrication.

In short, consumers used some whale product every day.

"If (people now) can understand that, they can understand a little more why the Morgan was out there," Engelman says.

Theme three: whaling as a cultural crossroads.

The crew list from the Morgan shows that the 1,700 individuals who served onboard came from various backgrounds - from Portuguese-speaking locales, from South Pacific islands, from Alaska.

"The ship itself and its crew carried this multi-language, multi-ethnic community that had to learn how to get along even before the end of slavery, at a time when there was a lot of racism and religious upheaval," Engelman says.

Not only that, but the Morgan travelled to ports around the world. Many merchant ships would shuttle between New York and San Francisco, but the Morgan might go to New Zealand for one cruise, then to Alaska and to the Azores.

And the fourth theme: Whaling had an impact on the national identity, as well as local and regional identities.

In that spirit, New London Landmarks is creating a city walking tour called "Built on Blubber," showing how much New London owes to the whaling trade - houses, libraries, churches, Engelman says.

In preparing the exhibit, the seaport folks did a formal visitors' study in New London, Boston and New Bedford to see what residents knew, what they wanted to know, and what they're interested in doing.

The site will, by the way, boast tables with umbrellas and seating for six people, where visitors might eat or just spend time.

"One measurement of our success here is people will come and hang out," Crewe says.

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IF YOU GO

What: New London stop of Charles W. Morgan 38th voyage traveling dockside exhibit

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. May 24-25, May 31 and June 1

Where: New London City Pier, bottom of State Street

Cost: Suggested admission $5 per person

For more information: mysticseaport.org, (860) 572-0711

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