A Priceless Museum Artifact, But in the Ocean

​An American maritime museum took its most valuable object, a 19th-century whaling ship, on a grand tour last summer.

Courtesy of Mystic Seaport

Feeling grimy and exhausted on a cool evening in late July, I was following Linda Carmeroto across a dock at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. I was eager to get to the car she said was waiting for us in a nearby parking lot. We hadn’t been introduced yet, and while walking behind her I gazed silently at the moon that had just risen over Buzzard’s Bay.

Carmeroto turned to me and said, “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”

I looked at the moon. “Who?”

“The Morgan!”

She was talking about the ship that I had disembarked from just minutes earlier, and which we were practically still standing under: the Charles W. Morgan, America’s last surviving wooden whaling vessel. Built in 1841 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the Morgan made 37 voyages over 80 years—spanning the heydays of the U.S. whaling business as well as its decline. The ship went from New Bedford to New Zealand, to Chile and to Madagascar, collecting thousands of gallons of oil and thousands of pounds of whalebone each year. At some point on its maiden voyage the Morgan might have crossed paths with the Acushnet, which had set sail from New Bedford a few months earlier and was carrying a young Herman Melville.

The Morgan brought home its last barrels of oil in 1921. Two decades after that the ship was acquired by the Mystic Seaport museum and tied up there on the shore of the Mystic River in Connecticut. The vessel would make appearances in film, including the 1956 Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick. The director Ron Howard, before shooting his film In the Heart of the Sea, would come by to inspect it in 2013.

Mystic Seaport, “The Museum of America and the Sea,” holds the world’s largest collection of maritime history, and the Morgan is its prize artifact. In the summer of 2014, after performing an extensive restoration, the museum took this most valuable artifact out to sea again for “The 38th Voyage”—a grand tour of sorts. Journalists like me were invited aboard for passages between each New England port. "I stood on that deck for 20 years and told people it would never sail," Carmeroto told me. "She made a liar out of me!” Carmeroto is one of countless Mystic Seaport employees and volunteers who, over time, ushered more than 20 million museum visitors on and off the stationary ship—delivering spiels about the boat’s construction and its place in American history, and telling anyone who asked, “No, we’d never take her out to sea.”

“She’s too old, too big, too valuable.” That’s what Marelda Hart, another longtime volunteer, recalls saying. “It’s an artifact, and you don’t use artifacts.”

But when leadership changed at Mystic Seaport in 2009, the plan for the Morgan changed as well. Five years later, the vessel sailed on its 38th Voyage—a smaller, shorter trip than the ones made in previous centuries, to be sure, but a hearty jaunt on the Atlantic all the same.

It's remarkable that, before this summer, no living person knew what it felt like to sail a wooden whaling ship on the open ocean, and there are now at least 100 who have have experienced it. And it's unusual that the museum opted to put its most valuable artifact in harm's way. More meaningful, though, is the example this set for other institutions dedicated to curating public history. The story of the Morgan’s return to sea is the story of a small-town American museum’s fight to stay relevant in the digital age.

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Courtesy of Krystal Kornegay Rose

Mystic Seaport was incorporated in 1929, when America’s great age of sail was finished and wooden ships were being demolished for firewood, as the “Marine Historical Association.” Today the Seaport has 500 boats, millions of logbooks, nautical charts, and photographs, and a working shipyard—surrounded by all the trappings of an authentic 19th-century coastal village. It’s a classic “living history” museum; if you’ve been to Colonial Williamsburg, you know the shtick.

The Morgan was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967, and in 1968 Mystic Seaport was the subject of a 19-page spread in National Geographic magazine. About half a million people paid to walk the grounds each year for the next decade or so. Attendance peaked in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial.

In 2005, the Boston Globe called Mystic Seaport “a somewhat-forgotten jewel” that was considered more of a school field-trip venue than a destination worthy of regular visits. “People constantly tell us they haven't been here since they were little," the museum’s spokesman at the time said. This prompted head-scratching among the employees, according to the Globe:

Why, they wonder, does it take so long for a return visit? Shouldn't their beloved seaport, a world-class museum of maritime history less than two hours from Boston and New York, be a destination for frequent stops, just the way one might put the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim Museum on their must-see list every time they pass through Manhattan?

That year the Seaport counted approximately 320,000 visitors. Attendance declined to 287,000 in fiscal year 2009 and 256,000 in 2010; other living history museums in the region observed a similar pattern at the time.

The American economy was in a state of collapse when Steve White took over as president of Mystic Seaport in January 2009, and the Morgan had just been taken out of the water for an essential restoration operation. White and his colleagues were uneasy. “Here we have this incredibly important maritime object, this incredibly important museum artifact, vulnerable, out of the water, and in need of a lot of financial resources,” he recounts to me; meanwhile, “during these dark days,” people were thinking to themselves, “Were institutions like Mystic Seaport going to be able to remain open if this was going to be the next great depression?”

White, a former middle-school English teacher, describes himself as a kind of obsessive inquirer. He likes to ask as many questions—“sometimes rhetorical, sometimes pointed with a specific outcome in mind”—as he can get away with, and he had a lot about the Morgan. As he learned more about the museum’s plans for the ship’s restoration, a natural question became: If the Morgan is being restored as comprehensively as the plan calls for—from the waterline to the keel, so that she’ll be floating on an almost entirely new bottom—does that mean that she will be seaworthy in the end?

At first it was just a question, he says.

But it prompted another: “And if you believe that she is going to be seaworthy, why wouldn’t we take her back to sea?”

Followed by a request: “Prove to me that this would be wrong somehow, because… from my naive point of view, I believe that this is potentially a moment we’re being handed, and this is an opportunity we have to grasp.”

Tasked with finding a reason not to let the Morgan venture beyond the Mystic River for the first time since 1941, the museum came up short. “From all perspectives,” White says, citing potential regulatory hurdles, insurance policies, whether the ship could safely travel down the Mystic River, which is more shallow today than it was in 1941, “it looked feasible.” By September 2009, with a unanimous vote of approval from the museum’s board of trustees, it was decided: The Morgan could be taken out to sea when it was ready.

Courtesy of Krystal Kornegay Rose

So, amid budget cuts and layoffs (the Seaport reduced its staff by 25 percent in 2009), White was pushing forward a program that would, in the end, cost about $12 million. The restoration of the ship was $7.5 million, but everything involved with the 16-week voyage—“all the administrative costs, all the dockside programming and exhibits, all the staff of course”—added substantially. How, for example, does one go about insuring an irreplaceable ship? (A spokesman couldn’t give me a dollar amount, but would say that figuring out the policy was at least as burdensome as the actual cost.)

“You can’t, in my opinion, succeed merely by cutting,” says White. “The challenge of our strategic planning process, to the tee, was, while indeed we have to become more efficient, we have to find the big ideas and we have to be focused on them and be relentlessly committed to completing them. And one of them was clearly sailing the Charles W. Morgan.”

And people loved the museum's new goals. Fundraising requests for maintaining a ship that stayed permanently docked were one thing, but asking donors to help get the Morgan back on the water was thrilling. Donations to Mystic Seaport grew by 40 percent in the year before the voyage, White says. It also reinvigorated daily life at the museum, where skilled workers were no longer simply describing their maritime trades for the public but actually putting them to use for the Charles W. Morgan.

There’s a cooperage on the museum grounds, where visitors can see how all sorts of wooden barrels were manufactured for maritime commerce 150 years ago. The Mystic Seaport cooper started making barrels for the Morgan. All the metalwork for the ship—10 sets of oarlocks for its whaleboats, the hanks that connected the jibs to the stays—was done by hand in the shipsmith shop.

It unified the staff and volunteers at a desperate time, says White: “Everybody had a role in some way, and this was something that they had a direct connection to and could help enable. It wasn’t something happening out of their control. I think it really brought us together as a museum.”

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The author on The Morgan (Courtesy of Krystal Kornegay Rose)

I spent the autumn of my junior year in college at Mystic Seaport, living with 16 other students in houses on the museum grounds and taking classes in maritime history, literature, oceanography, ecology, and marine policy. Our professors and the credits for our transcripts came from Williams College, a liberal arts school whose biggest connection to maritime history, as far as I know, is that its campus in the Berkshires is near the house where Melville lived when he was writing Moby-Dick. During the Williams-Mystic program, as it’s called, of course we read Moby-Dick—and a few of our literature classes were actually held aboard the Morgan, which was dry-docked in the shipyard at the time. A couple of my classmates earned tuition money by hammering away on the Morgan for several hours a week.

Come 2013, the museum began accepting applications for the 38th Voyagers program, a project funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and through which anyone could go on the Morgan for one day and one night during the 38th Voyage provided that he or she used that experience to produce something—an article, a poem, a painting, a video—for the museum to keep as a record. I applied and was accepted on the condition of writing about the project for the Atlantic.

My semester in Mystic had meant a lot to me, and I was glad for the chance to reconnect with the place and the institution by way of the Morgan. That the 38th Voyage was billed as an effort “to raise awareness of America’s maritime heritage and to call attention to issues of ocean sustainability and conservation” didn’t hurt, either.

On May 17th, 2014, the Morgan was towed down the Mystic River to New London, Connecticut, escorted by tugs, smaller boats, and thousands of well-wishers. The ship was outfitted with a few modern-day technologies for safety and navigation purposes—radios, GPS, fire extinguishers, and the like—that would be removed at the end of the summer. The 38th Voyage officially began when the Morgan left New London a month later, sailing to Newport, Rhode Island, and then Martha’s Vineyard—where 7,822 people, including David Letterman, lined up over four days to have a look on deck.

When the Morgan sailed to its hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in early July, it was carrying a 38th Voyager named Peter Whittemore. In his recap of the sail, published on the NEH website, Whittemore writes:

I am the great-great-grandson of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. He left this port, which in the 1840s was the richest city in the world, on the whale-ship Acushnet like many a young man, going out to find work in the energy sector, as they do today in the shale oil fields of the Dakotas. It has been the thrill of a lifetime to be among the crew sailing into this port, blood coursing in our veins like the singing of the rigging, with the joy of the creation filling our souls like the wind in the sails. We did not catch sight of the great White Whale, but believe me, he's still out there.

Melville sailed in 1841, just four months before the Charles W. Morgan was launched. One might say the Acushnet of New Bedford launched the novel Moby Dick and the Morgan has given me an opportunity to return the story to its source on a "sister" ship.

On July 11, off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, cruising on the grounds of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Morgan encountered a group of humpback whales. The crew lowered a whaleboat: a small open vessel, pointed at both ends, that can be rowed or sailed, and was historically dispatched from the mother ship for chasing and killing whales; the fictional Pequod traveled with four of these, and the Morgan typically carried seven. Harpoons were involved the last time the Charles W. Morgan lowered one of these boats at sea, but on this occasion the boat’s occupants held only cameras. “The story of whaling had come full-circle,” White would say later.

Passengers of the Morgan go whale-watching. (Courtesy of Mystic Seaport)

The marine biologist Sylvia Earle watched from the Morgan’s deck, as did Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of In the Heart of the Sea. When asked what it felt like to spend the day looking at whales from that vantage point, Philbrick said, “It’s hard to articulate.”

Dan McFadden, Mystic Seaport’s spokesman, says it was “a very spiritual moment for many people.” While watching a mother whale and her calf swimming within arm’s reach of the whaleboats, McFadden says, he had a difficult time empathizing with the men who had stood in his place 100 years ago and thrown harpoons. “The whales are still here, and in some ways doing better” than they were a century ago, “and the Morgan is still here, but with a very different mission” than before, he says.

On July 22, at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, where I stepped on board, the Morgan was tied up next to the USS Constitution. The Morgan, coincidentally, is America’s “oldest commercial ship still afloat,” while the Constitution, built in 1797, is America’s oldest ship, period. My fellow Voyagers and I spent the night below deck in individual bunks in the forecastle. There are few spaces below deck where an adult can stand upright, and the forecastle isn’t one of them. Nor were the bunks big enough for a man of average or above-average height to extend his legs fully. Nineteenth-century whalers may have been able to live like this for years at a time, but some of us couldn’t even do it for one night. "Screw the past!" said one person in my group who gave up, after a few hours of tossing and turning, and went to sleep on a bench on the deck.

Bright and early on July 23, we were tugged out of Boston and, before long, sailing en route to the Cape Cod Canal and Buzzard’s Bay. The Morgan was able to travel using nothing but the wind for several hours that day—yes, that’s what square-rigged sailing vessels are supposed to be able to do, but on many other legs of the voyage the wind hadn’t cooperated, and she was on a tight schedule. Not making it to her scheduled port of call for the night was never an option, so when in doubt, the crew took down her sails and let one of the accompanying tugboats pull her course.

At the beginning of the summer, no one had known how the Morgan would handle; every ship is different, and it’s not as if there was anyone alive who could tell the 2014 captain, Kip Files, that this ship turns well—which it does. Captain Files and his crew were happily surprised by just how smooth the Morgan turned out to be on the water, despite its bulky looks. The Morgan was faster and easier to tack than they’d predicted. We were lucky that on this, the last and longest leg of the voyage, we were able to feel the Morgan’s power to a pretty full extent, despite the trickiness of navigating the Cape Cod Canal’s fickle tides.

I ended up being one of 85 people who traveled with the Morgan, in turns, as part of the Voyagers project last summer. Having us on board was crucial in as much as the 38th Voyage itself was key to the museum’s newly articulated vision statement, which White says is dictated by a commitment to experiences that are “immersive and interactive,” “multidisciplinary and multicultural,” and based on principles of “shared authority”—all touchstones of what academics call “public history.”

“We gave those spaces to you,” White tells me, “so that you could help us interpret this experience and shed your personal light on it so that generations to come will all know how you saw it. Not to mention all the people we met along the way who shared with us their family stories about the grandfather or an uncle or a relative that went to sea on a whaleship, or indeed on the Charles W. Morgan.” The number of people who came out of the woodwork, so to speak, when the Morgan was docked at different places this summer was “overwhelming,” he says.

He thinks the museum accomplished everything it wanted to in terms of reaching new people and changing the public’s perceptions of what it does. “It elevated our faith in ourselves, it elevated our faith in the institution among the maritime community. I think there’s tremendous pride now at the museum for what we accomplished. Quite a bit different than how we felt about our accomplishments in the middle of the recession, when there was just such tremendous worry.”

Courtesy of Mystic Seaport

Months later, the momentum from the voyage of the Morgan is carrying Mystic Seaport through a handful of ambitious undertakings, with funding rolling in for an expanded exhibition space and, of course, brand new displays revolving around the ship’s latest excursion. The pre-recession challenges—“ about programming and development, funding for the programs, making the museum relevant and engaging to the public”—remain, but the museum’s “spirit,” White says, “has changed dramatically.”

The Seaport’s “interpreters,” employees and volunteers like Linda Carmeroto and Marelda Hart, now have new things to tell the patrons they greet. “They now can give concrete personal experiences [to say] this is what it feels like, this is how we tuned the rig, this is how we climbed the rig, this is how we furled the sails, and set the sails,” says White. It’s “an entirely different way of sharing information.”

The Morgan itself has been transformed, though many of its original planks are still in place, and the keel that touched the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean last summer is the same one that left a bloody wake in the South Pacific 100 years ago. In the end, the Morgan collected 1.1 million gallons of spermaceti, 603,540 gallons of whale oil, and 152,934 pounds of whalebone.

It will always be true that this ship alone remains to tell the story of America’s whaling era, the same way Ishmael alone remained to tell the story of the Pequod in Melville’s novel. But the Morgan’s story is not just about whaling anymore; in 2015, it’s actually more bound up with the stories of people like me and Steve White, people who have nothing in common with Melville except that we, as the author put it, “cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean” as he.