The Nantucket Whaling Museum

“Some of the greatest parts of the NHA collection are the curios and souvenirs brought back by the town’s whale ships.”

After more than five years and $12.8 million, the Nantucket Historical Association reopened its significantly expanded and restored Whaling Museum at 13 Broad Street on June 4. The 28,000 square-foot project links the 1847 Mitchell family spermaceti-candle factory to the 1971 Folger Museum, making all levels handicap accessible and climate controlled – an enormous challenge in itself.

The heart of the building is Gosnell Hall, soaring two-and-a-half stories and serving as a lobby greeting area and a hub for special events. Several artifacts housed here are the museum’s most popular, and are central to the design of the hall. On the back wall for example, is the fully restored 1881 clock originally installed in the tower of the Unitarian Church on Orange Street. Presented to the town by William Hadwen Starbuck, the clock boasts wooden dials. Located in the middle of the museum’s central stairwell, the clock’s pendulum is viewable from the main lobby and as visitors climb the stairs, they see the entire working mechanism from several vantage points.

Highlighting Nantucket’s Whaling Past

The skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale articulated in a diving position dominates the light-filled space of Gosnell Hall. “This is the whale that put Nantucket on the map,” commented Niles Parker, NHA Robyn and John Davis Curator. “During the height of the whaling era, men left the island in droves to hunt the sperm whale. It is because of this whale that the island enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most prosperous ports in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.” Directly beneath is the museum’s whaleboat, which gives a remarkable concept of the idea of scale. It’s easy to imagine the hunt for sperm whales on the high seas using harpoons and other implements that appear on exhibit nearby.

To one side is a staircase that curves around the Fresnel lens, produced in France in 1850 and installed in Sankaty Head Lighthouse in 1851. This revolutionary lens used a series of prisms to concentrate even the poorest source of light into a forceful beam. The Sankaty light was visible up to 24 miles at sea, and was referred to by mariners as the “blazing star.” Originally fueled by whale oil, then by kerosene, the light was electrified in 1933 before being donated to the museum in 1950.

Hadwen & Barney factory

The opposite side of the Gosnell Hall offers a look at the original exposed brick exterior wall of the 1847 Richard Mitchell and Sons candle factory. The building was erected immediately after the Nantucket Great Fire that devastated much of the downtown business district and wharves in 1846. It was sold to William Hadwen and Nathaniel Barney in 1848. The granite lintel bearing their names is now exposed over the outside door.

An integral part of the reconstructed Whaling Museum is the restored spermaceti-candle factory. This includes a two-story beam press and the foundation of its oil processing tryworks revealed when restorers stripped away later additions to the building. This is the only candleworks factory in the world with its original beam press in place. The press was used to squeeze oil from sacks of spermaceti and the foundation of the tryworks would have had a brick hearth on top where whale oil could be heated and refined. “This is an important building not only because of its place in Nantucket’s whaling history, but because it also gives us an opportunity to better understand the island’s economy,” mused Parker. “The discovery of what remains the only originally located beam press in the world allows us to better explore the roles of merchants, traders, and factory workers on Nantucket during the period when Nantucket was known as the greatest whaling port in the world.”

Educational Outreach for Visitors of All Ages

This portion of the museum also houses an assortment of souvenirs brought back to Nantucket by whalers, a cooperage display, and candle making exhibition. The outstanding collection of artifacts from the South Seas includes clubs, spears, and a carved miniature canoe from New Zealand. Some of the greatest parts of the NHA collection are the curios and souvenirs brought back by the town’s whale ships. These also include China trade porcelains, artifacts, and paintings. The emphasis here is on what was important to people in the early 1800s.

The first floor offers an education area toward the front of the building. This is an artifact discovery area where young visitors can explore cases with pullout drawers showcasing arrowheads, whaling implements, clothing, and reproduction whale teeth. The hands-on interactive components are expected to prove very popular with young visitors.

Other educational outreach includes a film, The Bones of History, to be shown daily at the museum. Produced by Nantucket filmmaker John Stanton, the seventeen-minute piece features the NHA sperm whale and offers a glimpse of the history of whaling on the island.

Thousands of Objects on Display

A series of catwalks bring the visitor back to Gosnell Hall where exhibits can be seen from different heights and vantage points including an eye-level look at the sperm whale. The museum is a social setting where visitors can see and be seen, and where visually interesting iconic objects can be viewed from various angles.

The top-flight climate control allows the museum to present more of its collection than ever before. “We have hundreds of thousands of objects,” commented Niles Parker. “Previously, less than five percent have been on view. Now we have the capability to responsibly take our treasures out for public view. We will be aggressively rotating artifacts.”

And what artifacts! The sea captains’ portraits, island historical artifacts, image collections, photos, and post cards are collections each in themselves.

The Nantucket Historical Association retains one of the finest collections of scrimshaw in the world. Special cases have been constructed to display these pieces that include fiber optic lighting that will focus light on objects, yet keep heat out of the cases. Bone is particularly susceptible to expansion and contraction from changes in temperature and humidity, presenting unique challenges to the design team in charge of creating the cases to display this collection.

Birds-eye View of the Harbor

The last stop on the tour of the museum features a trek to the top of building, passing a series of barometers and navigational equipment on the way up. The destination is the roof walk, which in itself is easily worth the price of admission. The roof deck offers the best view of the harbor on the island and provides seating where the visitor can relax and take in the vista, a view that makes the world of Nantucket look very large indeed. The observation deck is also easily accessed by elevator, for those who have difficulty with the stairway.

The museum is well worth a visit. Those who venture inside will be excited by the range and depth of the collection now on view, some of which has never been on public display. The design of the building is impressive; and the new facility offers the Nantucket Historical Association the ability to showcase its magnificent collection to its best advantage within the structure.

NHA Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street, Nantucket, MA 02554, (508) 228-1894. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Thursday evenings until 9 p.m., and Sunday noon-5 p.m. For further information visit the website at or call (508) 228-1894.

Whaling Museum Fun Facts

• Cobblestones were laid on Main Street in 1838. Despite all rumors, there is no proof that the stones were used as ballast on whaling ships. More likely they were laid to cope with New England spring mud.

• The spermaceti beam press in the NHA’s candle factory is the only one of its kind in the world still in its original location. When workers were restoring the building, the press and surrounding flooring still smelled of whale oil – 157 years later.

• Sperm-whale oil is still considered one of the purest oils known to man. Its viscosity remains constant at any temperature and has been used in space programs for that reason.

• There is so much oil in the bones of a sperm whale that a skeleton may continue to seep oil for decades.

• There is a harpoon in the Whaling Museum that was removed from a sperm whale caught twice by the same man – nine years apart.

• Nantucket has the largest concentration of Native American place names in the country. Nantucket is translated as ‘far away land’ in the Wampanoag dialect.

• P. T. Barnum tried to persuade Captain William Cash to donate his huge, 18-foot sperm whale jawbone to his Free Museum in New York City, but Cash donated it to the Nantucket Athenaeum instead. It is now on display in the Whaling Museum.

• Benjamin Franklin’s mother, Abiah Folger Franklin, was born on Nantucket. In 1769, Benjamin Franklin and his second cousin, Nantucket whaling Captain Timothy Folger, were the first to chart the Gulf Stream.

• Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket is the second oldest lighthouse in America.

• Frederick Douglass gave his first speech before an all-white audience in the Nantucket Athenaeum’s Great Hall in 1841.

Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal