The City That Lit the World: New Bedford

Like Fall River, New Bedford is a city that’s had a tough time. Closed mills figure prominently into the city’s waterfront, and fishing is the primary industry there today. That said, the city has a rich history of textiles and whaling, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum is a draw for visitors to the city. Though I’d visited on a class field trip after reading Moby Dick in high school, my dad and I made the trip out last weekend to see what it’s all about again.

While a lot of niche museums can veer into the territory of tacky tourist trap, the New Bedford Whaling Museum is very well done, not to mention huge. Four floors of the museum detail all parts of New Bedford and whaling history. Huge whale skeletons greet visitors when they first walk in, and oil still drips from one skeleton into an Erlenmeyer Flask on the stairs. A New Bedford Artists Abroad exhibit showcases work created by locals as they traveled around the world to Grand Manan, Venice, and North Africa. The paintings here were impressive as they spanned a number of artistic periods as well, from Romanticism to the Rocky Mountain School.

On the second floor, there’s an extensive exhibit which explores the history of the whaling industry and considers how preservation is effective today. Moving into adjoining rooms, visitors are struck by the museum’s superlatives. The Lagoda ship is the largest ship model in the world and the museum also owns the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw. I particularly enjoyed walking to the upper floors in the Lagoda room to learn about the different cultures that have been part of whaling in the New Bedford area, particularly the Azores and Cape Verde. There’s a large Azorean community in New Bedford and Fall River, and it was neat to learn how this community made its roots here, contributing in large part to the fishing industry. If I remember correctly, a large number of Azorean refugees were accepted to the city after an earthquake struck in the mid 1900s, but people had been coming for years beforehand.

In addition to their extensive exhibits on whaling, the museum also has spaces devoted to New Bedford’s textile and industrial history as well as general history on the area. If you go, be ready to spend a few hours and bring your student ID: $14 for adults, $9 for students.

After spending a few hours at the museum, my Dad and I went for a walk around the historic downtown area surrounding the museum. There were a couple shops selling artwork and maritime gifts, ranging from glass-blown octopi to pirate toys. I wished there were fewer cars parked on the quiet cobblestone streets to get some good pictures, but it was still the perfect time of day to walk around.

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