Written By: Michael R. Harrison | Photography By: Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

Shipwreck. Starvation. Murder. Cannibalism. Big Hollywood stars. What more could one hope for in a museum experience?

Starting this spring, the Nantucket Historical Association recounts the story of the whaleship Essex disaster in a major new exhibition, Stove by a Whale: 20 Men, 3 Boats, 96 Days. Opening at the Whaling Museum on April 24, the show recounts the incredible aftermath of one crew’s fateful encounter with a sperm whale in 1820, and the ways in which that encounter resonates through American literature and popular culture even today.

whaleMost Nantucketers who’ve visited the island’s landmark Whaling Museum are able to imagine the gory and difficult job their forebears faced in hunting giant whales. Just think about it: Men in twenty-foot rowboats wielded iron spears against seventy- or eighty-foot whales in the middle of the vast ocean thousands of miles from home. Now imagine watching helplessly from your boat as an enraged sperm whale smashes a hole in your old, trusty Nantucket mother ship — something you’d never known a whale could do. Your ship fills with water and rolls over onto its beam-ends, a total wreck. What do you do next?

Stove by a Whale shows visitors what twenty men in 1820 did next, the risky choices they made, and the terrible consequences that befell them on what became a three-month flight to safety. It’s dramatic stuff. Through rare historic objects, compelling imagery, a bit of stagecraft, and some touches of modern technology, the exhibition takes visitors on an imaginative journey from Nantucket to the South Pacific
and back.

The heart of the presentation will be a twenty-foot replica whaleboat. Sit there amid dramatic murals and sounds of the remote ocean and watch the disaster unfold day by day through the evocative words of the survivors. Nearby, see the shell of a giant Galapagos tortoise probably consumed for food by a Nantucket sailor more than 150 years ago. See survivor Thomas Nickerson’s hand-written account of the event and crewman Benjamin Lawrence’s little length of twine, spun to pass the time in a tiny boat under the burning sun. Read first-hand accounts from some of the more than two hundred American whaleships that were out hunting at the time. To cap it off, see props and costumes from the new Ron Howard film adaptation of In the Heart of the Sea.

whale 2The Nantucket Historical Association is always interested in telling real stories of real people from the past. In Stove by a Whale, the museum has taken pains to focus on the experiences of the actual men who lived this story. We’ve unearthed new biographical details about the crew and made new discoveries about the subsequent lives of the survivors. To illuminate these nuggets, we’re displaying important early oil paintings of Nantucket whaling scenes, extraordinary logbooks from Pacific whaling voyages, ceremonial objects from the remote Marquesas Islands, one of the earliest dated pieces of Nantucket scrimshaw, and Herman Melville’s own copy of Obed Macy’s seminal book, The History of Nantucket.

The exhibition also features costumes and props from Ron Howard’s new film version of the story, In the Heart of the Sea, which is due for release in late 2015. The film is poised to launch the Essex into the forefront of the popular imagination nationwide. What better time for the NHA to present this very real and human story to the public? Join us for the journey, starting this spring at the Whaling Museum.

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