Arts Week

From Whaling Capital to Whale Conservation

IMG_3110There’s a new exhibition at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum called Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage, and no matter whether you’re a native, a washashore, or a visitor, there’s something there for you.

It details the story of how Provincetown evolved from hunting whales to saving them, with a special emphasis on the whaling days and how they helped PTown forge its identity. Once visitors get past the “ewww factor”  inherent in hindsight (i.e., how horrible that they did this, wasn’t it awful, I don’t like to think about it, etc.), this study in how an industry supported a town is fascinating.

IMG_3125John McDonagh, executive director of PMPM, has said that “Forgotten Port is a story that hasn’t been told. Few realize the fundamental and enduring impact of the whaling industry in shaping the town’s economy and culture. Because of whaling, by 1870 Provincetown was one of the richest towns in Massachusetts and second in American whaling, rivaled only by New Bedford.”

The exhibit is rich in narration, with snippets of information about whaling captains, whaling vessels, life onboard and life onshore, always allowing visitors to absorb the information at their own pace. See how sperm oil both illuminated and lubricated the industrial revolution; read the memorial to the wreck of the Rienzi; follow the Yankee and Portuguese captains and crews; learn about the family that built the Figurehead House.

IMG_3104Along with the written narrative, you can follow images, artifacts, videos and voice recordings that create together a whole picture of the life of one of America’s most important whaling ports. The museum is also continuously running the film Whaling Days, the only film made of a whaling voyage—and, honestly, not for the faint of heart. You can also see it on YouTube. It was commissioned by Captain John Atkins Cook (who recorded it on the whaling ship Viola) and shows him leading the actual hunt, the capture, and the rendering of whales onboard.

IMG_3109The history brought alive here starts with Provincetown’s early whaling days and the “drift whaling” practiced by the Wampanoag and early white settlers. It moves into Provincetown’s “golden age” of whaling, showing the details behind the statistics that between 1820 and 1920 more than 160 whaling ships left and returned to Provincetown, ranking the town fifth in vessels and third in voyages among 72 American ports. The final days of whaling are illustrated with the decline of whale stocks, and finally, the rise of ecotourism and the will to protect cetaceans are documented.

IMG_3136There’s a strange connection between the past and the present: Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies president Richard Delaney says, “Today we’ve modified the same tools that were used to catch whales in order to save them.  By turning around the point of the harpoon that was used to catch them, we can now cut the ropes and free them.”

Coming full circle from using to enjoying whales, this exhibit is well worth everyone’s time… and thought. Every generation leaves its mark on the places it inhabits, and reflecting on the marks of past generations while looking to the future is surely one of the most important of endeavors.

Want to go? Forgotten Port:  Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage is open April 1 through November 30, 2014. The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum collects, preserves, interprets, researches, exhibits, and publishes archival historical materials and exhibit materials depicting important events of Provincetown history. Open Daily 9 – 5 April 1 to Memorial Day, then 9 – 7 to Labor Day, and 9 – 5 to Nov. 30.  Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors, $4 children 4 – 12, 3 and under free. Parking is free every day through April. In May, parking is free Monday through Friday. until Memorial Day. 

For more information, visit the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, call 508-487-1310, or follow PMPM on Facebook and Twitter.


Jeannette de Beauvoir is the host of Arts Week on WOMR, a contributing writer to Provincetown Magazine, and a novelist, editor, and marketing writer. More about her at