Author Archives: New Bedford Whaling Museum blog

The Lazarus Project and the Wreck of the “Viking”

Re-imaging the Opening of Japan

 Guest post submitted by Gregory Heyworth Director of the Lazarus Project  and Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi.

“The past,” as Faulkner said, “is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This past May, a team of imaging scientists and students from the Lazarus Project, an initiative to recover damaged manuscripts using multispectral imaging technology housed at the University of Mississippi, arrived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum to prove Faulkner right.

The object of interest was a damaged logbook from 1862 faded into near illegibility. The method involved photographing the manuscript with a cutting edge 50-megapixel camera and LED light arrays in twelve wavelengths between the ultraviolet and the infrared. With careful image processing, multispectral photography can “see” text that has been washed away, faded and charred.

Lazarus Project

 [Image before and after]

While Drs. Gregory Heyworth and Roger Easton from the Lazarus Team regularly deal with ancient manuscripts, modern manuscripts can be equally challenging and historically important. That is certainly the case with much of the New Bedford collection. The significance of this particular logbook begins two centuries before the shipwreck of the Fairhaven merchant vessel off the coast of Japan.

For two hundred years between 1633 and 1853, while Western Europe was moving from Renaissance to Enlightnment to Industrial Revolution, Japan languished frozen in the past, a Hermit Kingdom cut-off from the rest of the world. Under the policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate known as the sakoku, any foreigner attempting to enter Japan did so upon pain of death, while natives were forbidden from leaving Japan. Aside from limited contact with the Dutch, Japan had no trade dealings with the West whatsoever.

As we all learned in high school history, all that changed in 1852-54 when Admiral Matthew Perry “opened” Japan, establishing a trade relationship and mutual amity. The truth, however, is more complicated. Perry’s “opening” of Japan was really an act of coercion, backed up by outright threats of military annihilation by a modern fleet of steam-driven warships. In practice, the Japanese capitulation was widely resisted by the general populace and the sakoku with its death-sentence for foreigners remained unchallenged.

Alongside the political narrative of the opening of Japan, scholars have been turning to the logbooks of whaling and merchant vessels to establish a more accurate social narrative of the period. The 1832 the shipwreck of Japanese fishermen on the coast of Washington, followed in 1841 by the more famous rescue of Manjiro and another crew of Japanese fisherman by a whaler off the coast of Japan, offer firsthand accounts of crucial early contact and the germs of a fragile detente between cultures without which Perry’s  trade treaties could never have succeeded in practice.

Among these early relations, perhaps none is more historically significant, and yet less studied, that the wreck of the Fairhaven merchant ship the Viking in 1863. With a crew of Americans and 400 Chinese immigrants, the Viking ran aground on the small Japanese island of Mikurajima. Faced by the suddeness of this foreign intrusion, the villagers took steps to execute the crew according to the law of sakoku until the village secretary intervened. In the ensuing months, a genuine friendship, aided by their creation of the first Japanese-English dictionary, grew between the sailors and villagers. In many ways, a truly open, modern Japan began on this small island, and its story is preserved in this unique neglected record of the Viking.

The Lazarus Project hopes to continue the process of recovery by collaborating with the New Bedford Whailing Museum in the creation of a digital archive of 19th century Japanese-American maritime relations held by the museum into a digital archive.

The Futurity of the Whale, “Moby-Dick Big Read”

Thanks to Dr Philip Hoare for providing this blog post about Moby-Dick Big Read. He is artist-in-residence at the Marine Institute, Plymouth University, UK and author of The Whale (Ecco), winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Posted today, Chapter 30, The Pipe, as read by David Cameron. Download all the chapters or listen online.

This project is a great kick-start for our own Moby Dick Marathon. Mark November 12 on your calendar, it is “Reader Call-In Day”. Send an email to mdmarathon (at) or call (508) 717-6851 to request a reading slot.

Moby-Dick, published in 1851, is acknowledged as the greatest American novel.   A century and a half later, art and science still has to catch up with it.  Herman Melville prophesied an age in which man’s abuse of nature would lead to problems for both human and cetaceans.  That intense sense of contemporary relevance – the delayed-effect impact of the book – prompted Angela Cockayne and I, as curators of the Moby-Dick Big Read for Peninsula Arts, Plymouth University, UK, to create an online rendition of the book.  Above all, we were inspired by the world famous New Bedford Whaling Museum’s marathon reading of the book.

Our readers include Tilda Swinton, Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow, John Waters, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nathaniel Philbrick, Chad Hardbach, Caleb Crain, Andrew Delbanco and Mary Oliver.  But as well as these celebrated names, we invited readings from the general public in the democratic spirit of the project – from schoolchildren to fishermen.  And rather than have a blank web page whilst listening to these chapters, we expanded the project to include images from international contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor, Mark Wallinger, George Shaw, Dexter Dallwood, Gavin Turk, Zaha Hadid, Susan Hiller, Dorothy Cross and Antony Gormley, many of whom have created new works specifically for the project.

I like to think Herman Melville would have approved of this British exposition of his extraordinary work.  After all, the novel was partly conceived during Melville’s visit to London in 1849.  He stayed in rooms on Craven St, next to  Charing Crossstation – the house is now marked by a blue plaque.  And for reasons of copyright (which did not then exist in the US), his book, entitled The Whale, was also first published in Britain by Richard Bentley, in a deluxe, three-volume edition for the carriage trade.

Craven Street, London

Famously, the book did not fare well on its transition across the Atlantic.  The American first edition never sold out and Melville died in 1891, his genius unacknowledged.  Here too we British may lay claim to reviving Moby-Dick’s reputation.  In the 1920s, writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, W.H.Auden and E.M.Forster acclaimed Moby-Dick as a modernist work before modernism was invented.

How amazed Melville would be to find out far his work has lodged in our modern culture, both high and low.  Moby-Dick remains firmly in the zeitgeist.  Kraken-tattooed and buff science-fiction writer, China Mieville’s latest book, Railsea, riffs on the subject, while director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is working on a movie version of Moby-Dick set in outer space.  And every high street has reminder of Melville’s masterpiece named after Captain Ahab’s first mate – Starbuck.  There, sipping your latte, you may check another, aural reference: pop star Moby, real name Richard Melville Hall, is named after the book written by his great-great uncle, Herman.  Word is that Moby-Dick is Barack Obama’s favourite book; also Morgan Freeman’s; and Woody Allen confesses to being a recent convert.

And the reverberations of Melville’s text continue, not least in the way it raised questions of imperialism, fundamentalism, morality and faith.  When it was published, shortly before the American Civil War, it was a coded comment on the internecine conflict over slavery (most especially via the indirect inspiration of Frederick Douglass, whom Melville may, or may not, have met in New Bedford’s streets).  More recently, it was cited by Edward Said in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when the writer compared the ‘war on terror’ as an impossible pursuit, like the captain’s demonic hunt for the White Whale.  Nor could you ignore its relevance today.  Witness this quote from Chapter One, ‘Loomings’:

Grand contested Election for the Presidency of the United States



I’m delighted to join the New Bedford Whaling Museum – global home of the back-story to Melville’s extraordinary work – in bringing Moby-Dick into the digital age.  After all, Melville’s book, with its unedited, digressive and allusive prose, resembles nothing so much as a modern blog.  The famous ‘Extracts’ that precede his main text have the air of a Victorian search engine.  And if he were writing his book today, I don’t think Herman would have ever finished it: he’d be forever googling ‘Whale’.

“Chasing the Light” Voyage Creates Foundation for Exhibitions

(This entry was originally published on the Museum’s new site  Arctic Visions.)


“Whenever we cross the Arctic we take on a few avian hitchhikers.” These words spoken by Karen Miles, wife of Rick Miles, co-owners and Captains of the Wanderbird expedition-cruise ship.  She displayed her photograph taken early that morning of a gyrfalcon devouring its prey while perched on the rail of the ship’s aft-deck. She glows, knowing how rare such a sighting is. Greenland, in the Arctic, is a place where survival is a never-ending battle. The success of any hunter, this gyrfalcon, was to be celebrated. One precious life to feed another.

Our August voyage to Greenland, timed to witness the explosion of color and light was titled Chasing the Light – and we did. As a rough guess, the ten passengers and five crew members aboard the Wanderbird  ‘chased’ with such photographic and artistic enthusiasm that we may have surpassed, in four weeks, the total photographic output of the mid-19th century. Remarkably, tens of thousands of digital photographs were taken, as well as traditional film; video and sound were also recorded. Some of this will lead to other work: paintings, drawings, installations, some of it an end unto itself. It will be exciting to see the collective output of this undertaking.

This journey was for many of us transformative, producing a perspective shift.  Imagining the hardships endured by people living in or travelling to one of the earth’s most demanding environments are made clear even in these short summer months. The Inuit people, the Norse, missionaries and whalers, all either called this place home or learned to respect this immense island of ice and rock. The ocean, massive ice, glacier lakes and waterfalls, the soggy and fragrant hummocks and prehistoric  geological features were all breathtaking. It was an honor travelling in the wakes of luminist painter William Bradford (1823-1892), Polar explorers Isaac Israel Hayes, Sir John Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, Adolphus Greely, and others before them.

The Wanderbird is a floating classroom, a Bed & Breakfast, a lookout. The Miles’ converted their sturdily constructed North Sea fishing trawler into a comfortable long range expedition vessel. The fishhold turned into six comfortable mahogany trimmed cabins accommodating as many as twelve. The Captains, experienced mariners and conservationists are tuned to nature and local culture. Food preparation, whenever possible, is based on obtaining locally hunted or fished resources: musk-ox, reindeer, seal, char, wolf fish, shrimp, crabs. The galley always emits enticing smells.

The diverse group aboard the Wanderbird, artists and crew members alike, have been invited by the Museum to share their work and experiences. First on these pages, and then potentially as part of a series related to the primary exhibition, Arctic Regions: Away then Floats the Ice Island.

As curator of this project my primary goal during Chasing the Light was to document as many of the original locations illustrated in Bradford’s  Arctic Regions  as possible. To that end, I am pleased to report that as a group we saw five,  possibly six locations previously captured by Bradford expedition photographers John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson. I will present these in the weeks to follow on this blog.

Here is the first installment.

Plate Number: 68 “View of Upernavik, the most northern settlement on the globe. The snow-clad summit of Kresarsoak seen in the distance.” (Dunmore and Critcherson, 1869)

Upernavik (M. Lapides, 2012)

Following William Bradford to the Frozen North

Counting the hours until launch. In a couple days I’ll be  one of a small group heading to  Greenland as we retrace William Bradford’s final Arctic voyage one hundred and forty-three years later. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, in April of 2013, will be republishing a modern edition of Bradford’s Arctic Regions in conjunction with our upcoming exhibit  Arctic Visions: Away then Float the Ice Island.

The Chasing the Light voyage was first envisioned a few years ago by Rena Bass Forman (1954-2011). At that time it seemed to me more a dream than opportunity to be taken. Instead, through the generosity of private donors and with careful planning this dream is now a reality. As artist and photographer Rena was inspired by Bradford’s work, but more specifically the photography incorporated within Arctic Regions as executed by Boston photographers John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson.

Castle Berg in Melville Bay over two hundred feet high.

Their photographs were the first taken in the high Arctic. At that time the theory of an Ice Age was still new, and the concept of an open Polar Sea was popular, though not proven. This perspective sits in contrast to our knowledge today; and to the discussion revolving around natural and manmade climate change; and the fact that Polar Sea is now opening up.  Then, like today, the public was hungry for news about ice, glaciers, and survival in one of the most remote regions of our planet.

Our Arctic Visions: Away then Float the Ice Island exhibit will run for two years. Adjacent to it we will feature a series of contemporary exhibits that will relate to the parallel narratives Bradford and fellow voyager and Arctic Explorer Isaac Israel Hayes developed. We will open this series with Rena Bass Forman’s exhibit also named Chasing the Light.

Our group of eleven voyagers includes: artists, explorers, photographers, filmmaker, teacher, polar guides, and curator. We hold to our core a thirst to explore and create, passed to us most recently from Rena, and through the centuries from Bradford and like-minded artists.

Engage with the developing exhibits and programming process via our Department of Digital Initiatives wiki. There you will find resources including an extensive reading list including a link to the draft transcription of Arctic Regions.

My role at the Museum, in addition to being Photography Curator, is as Director of the Department of Digital Initiatives.  I am, we are fully immersed within the “digital stream”. Follow William Bradford and Isaac Israel Hayes’s narratives via twitter, get voyage updates through Facebook and this blog, and upon our return and before the end of September catch the launch of our project-based microsite.

The Chasing the Light voyage will be carrying flags from The Explorers ClubThe Royal Canadian Geographic SocietyWings WorldQuest, and The New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Cherish the Quiet Spaces

Savoring the Moby-Dick Marathon

We are now just 51 weeks from the The 16th Annual Moby-Dick Marathon.  To the more than 1,000 participants who joined us in New Bedford for the 15th, and the hundreds more who  joined us through our  live stream programing, thank-you for making this year’s Marathon a resounding success.

For an insightful account of the 25 hour long journey go to the blog Killing the Buddha to read “The Lingering Loveliness of Long Things” by Meera Subramanian .  It begins…

Last Friday night, a man late in his years and a recent recipient of news about his body that no man wants to hear, leaned in close to me and asked me a question. The air was heavy with mortality, and its twin emotion, love. What his question was is irrelevant, but the answer, I realize as I sit down to write about a marathon public reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick last weekend, is not. My answer was about how I cherish the quiet spaces in life. Time without interruption. Time for deep conversations or a sensuous focus on a single subject. Time to get into the grit of life, and let it unfold. I am decidedly of the mind that that’s where all the good stuff happens. I also feel like these moments, in our hyper-communicative lives, are becoming extremely rare. We share more, with more people, but we stay on the surface of an unfathomable ocean.

Reading together aboard the Lagoda (photo by S. Russell/ Medium Studio)

2011 Moby Dick Marathon Reading Timetable

2011 Moby Dick Marathon Reading Timetable

Approximate Time and Chapter in book for each Watch

Watch Time Chapter
Start   1 12:00PM 1
1:00 4(-4pages)
2:00 9
3:00 14
4:00 17(+2pages)
Start 2 4:00 17(+2pages)
5:00 23
6:00 30
7:00 35
8:00 40
Start 3 8:00 40
9:00 43(-2pages)
10:00 48(+2pages)
11:00 53(+3pages)
12:00AM 57
Start 5 12:00AM 57
1:00 64(+5pages)
2:00 72
3:00 78
4:00 83
Start 5 4:00 83
5:00 87(+10pages)
6:00 92
7:00 99(+2pages)
8:00 104
Start 6 8:00 104
9:00 110(+4pages)
10:00 119(+4pages)
11:00 128
12:00 134(-2pages)
1:00 Finis

Tweet the Marathon with #mdm15

A Case for a National Digital Library

Robert Darnton, author of the article “Can We Create a National Digital Library?“, (New York Review of Books, Oct 28th, 2010) is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library. His noted specialty is the history of books.

The Museum’s Department of Digital Initiatives strives to keep up with electronic publishing and digitization trends.  While doing so we plan, as part of our ongoing website rebuild project,  to increase online access to the museum’s holdings, an idea which, if we follow Darnton’s thinking, puts us in the company of  Founding Fathers who wrote about  access to knowledge as an essential condition for a flourishing republic. It’s great to have a big idea to get behind.

The Underwater Behavior of Humpbacks, with Dr. David Wiley

Join us on Thursday, October 21 at 6:30pm for an illustrated talk by Dr. David Wiley Research coordinator of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. He will focus on the underwater behavior of humpbacks.

Co-sponsored by The Descendants of Whaling Masters.

A reception with light refreshments will precede the event.


The 2010 Herman Melville Birthday Lecture, with Robert K. Wallace

The 2010 Herman Melville Birthday Lecture:

“Discovering Whales, Petroglyphs, and Moby-Dick on the Olympic Peninsula in June 2008”

New Bedford Whaling Museum Theater, Friday, July 30, 5 – 6 p. m.

Admission Free

By Robert K. Wallace

This illustrated talk will highlight some of the discoveries Robert Wallace made on the Makah Indian Reservation of the Olympic Peninsula during a two-week trip with landscape painter Kevin Muente. Wallace will emphasize his encounters with gray whales, a humpback whale, and ancient Ozette petroglyphs in a sequence of events that brought Melville’s Moby-Dick to life before his very eyes.

Robert K. Wallace is a founder of the Melville Society Cultural Project at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. He is author of Melville and Turner, Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick, and Douglass and Melville. He has taught Literature and the Arts at Northern Kentucky University since 1972 and is a past president of the Melville Society.

From Our Walls to Yours

Thanks to our new partners at 1000museums for helping us improve our print on demand offerings and for providing this introduction to the service and product.

Freshen up your walls with custom archival print reproductions of artwork that you fell in love with while at the museum. We invite you to visit the museum store or to browse through the expansive gallery online at 1000Museums.

It’s a familiar story – you visit a museum and you’re so taken with one of the many works of art on display that you want a reproduction to hang in your home.  You search in the museum store and on the Internet, but all you can find (if you are lucky) is a reproduction that is either printed as a poster or in a size that just won’t work for the “the spot” selected in your home or office. Until now.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum has chosen 1000Museums as a partner to supply custom archival print reproductions of the museum’s permanent collection of artworks and historic photographs. The new program offers several options to art and history lovers that weren’t available in the past.

Beginning with a modest 21 images, 1000Museums has established a page on their website that not only displays pertinent information about the museum but also a gallery of the images available for print. From there, the art lover can select an archival print of his or her favorite artwork or photograph. The prints are offered in 4 standard sizes: unframed or framed, starting as low as $19.  Custom Archival Print means that the artwork is produced by an 11-color digital inkjet machine on 100% cotton rag paper that work in concert to produce color that is stunning. Further adding to the uniqueness of the print, no print is offered until a proof has been approved by the museum’s curatorial staff. Once it has been approved, the final product is watermarked in the lower white space with the museum’s logo as a reminder of the artwork’s home collection.

As this program matures, the plan is to grow the initial offering of 21 images into a much larger virtual print gallery containing a significant percentage of the permanent collection.  The prints are offered on an “on-demand” basis, meaning that the print is only produced when an order is placed. This ensures that the customer gets a fresh print with every order.