(Cotuit, Massachusetts) This summer, the Cahoon Museum of American Art will present Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler, a comprehensive survey of the art and history of the scrimshaw. From June 29 to October 30, 2022, the exhibition explores this unique tradition of American folk art created by whalers during the international whaling trade in the 19th century.
“Having studied, collected and sold scrimshaw for over 40 years, I was delighted to guest curate this exhibition to create an extensive display of some of the finest (and earliest) examples of the ‘art of the scrimshaw,’ said guest curator Dr. Alan. Granby, one of the world’s leading experts in scrimshaw identification, evaluation and appreciation. “I hope visitors will understand the importance of scrimshaw as an interesting form of American folk art, but as an art genre in its own right.”
Scrimshaw was once considered a quaint form of exoticism, possibly a sperm whale’s tooth on which a 19th-century whaler curiously engraved a decorative image. But what once graced a shelf or a mantel is now found in valuable museums and collections. ‘Quirkiness’ is now realized as art for its aesthetic qualities and also for the multi-layered stories and variety of stories and perspectives that objects share.
Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler evokes connections to historic life on Cape Cod, Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts, and shows how people from diverse backgrounds have expressed their artistic creativity. New insights into the lives of whalers include the amazing stories of local Wampanoag whalers and women whalers, including the legend of a female pirate. The exhibit also carries an important environmental message as it delves into the changing sights of whales over time.
Brought to life through the stories of the creators and recipients of these intricately detailed keepsakes, Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler features over 250 decorative and utilitarian items including scissors, boxes, baskets, walking sticks and kitchen utensils such as pie tongs and utensils, sewing items including needle cases and floggers, as well as pictorial scenes of whales and whaling, portraits, and naval and patriotic images.
Rare and exceptional examples of scrimshaw from important private collections and museums will be highlighted, including the earliest known example of an American scrimshaw whale tooth engraved by Nantucket scrimshander Edward Burdett (1805-1833). Displayed publicly for the first time, this whale tooth was engraved aboard the ship Japan off Nantucket Island during a voyage between 1825 and 1829. The exhibit will also feature the first signed and dated scrimshaw, created by Fredrick Myrick aboard the whaler Susanna off Nantucket. A rare scrimshaw whale tooth decorated by James Adolphus Bute aboard HM Sloop Beagle features scenes from Charles Darwin’s 1834 voyage.
Scrimshaw was the shipboard hobby of 19th and early 20th century whalers, using the harsh by-products of whaling – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, skeletal bone and baleen, often in combination with d others “found”. materials – to produce practical, utilitarian, decorative and ornamental items for themselves and as gifts for people at home. Life aboard the whalers consisted of long periods of boredom, and the whalers passed the time carving scrimshaws. Sailors and whalers who had no formal artistic training created objects of immense beauty and detail in the dirty, dangerous and uncomfortable conditions of a whaler.
The 19th century whaling industry was stimulated by the worldwide demand for whale oil, which became increasingly necessary during the Industrial Revolution. Whales were hunted for oil, meat and blubber; however, no whales were killed for their bones, teeth, or baleen. These by-products were readily available to ordinary sailors to use as material for creating tools and decorative items as they had no monetary value and would otherwise have been thrown overboard.
This exhibit features only authentic objects over 100 years old, which serve as examples of this culturally significant art form. The Cahoon Museum shares a passionate desire to preserve and protect endangered species. Scrimshaw was not a threat to whales, as whales were not hunted for their ivory.
“Scrimshaw is particularly relevant to the Cahoon Museum’s devotion to American art, as we are located on Cape Cod, the home of scrimshaw in southeastern New England,” said Dr. Sarah Johnson, Executive Director from the Cahoon Museum of American Art. “Our collection includes a number of 20th century paintings that celebrate the art of the scrimshaw, including Ship and Scrimshaw, painted in 1960 by famed Cape Cod artist Ralph Cahoon, who along with his artist wife Martha Cahoon maintained their art studios and gallery in the historic Museum building. Cahoon’s work often incorporated trompe l’oeil scrimshaw objects such as whalebones, combs, ditty boxes, logbooks, and referenced historic whalers. The connection between this exhibition and the Cahoons is fortuitous.
Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler includes scrimshaw from 15 New England private collections and the following museums: The Dietrich American Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Heritage Museums and Gardens, Sandwich, Massachusetts; The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, Virginia; Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut; Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, Massachusetts; New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.
Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler is organized by the Cahoon Museum of American Art with guest curator Dr. Alan Granby and Dr. Sarah Johnson, Executive Director of the Cahoon Museum of American Art. An accompanying catalog, Wandering whalers and their art: A collection of Scrimshaw’s masterpieces accompanies the exhibition. Written by Dr. Alan Granby, with a highlight by Dr. Stuart M. Frank, the world renowned scrimshaw expert. This 376-page book is available at cahoonmuseum.org/visit/museum-shop/
About the Cahoon Museum of American Art
The Cahoon Museum of American Art is a unique destination on Cape Cod. Located in the seaside village of Cotuit, MA, the Cahoon Museum welcomes visitors of all ages to experience vibrant local and regional art exhibits and enjoy fun, family-friendly activities. The museum presents a collection of American art from the 18th century to the contemporary in a charming historic house with a modern gallery. The Museum is committed to its mission to celebrate American art in ways that expand knowledge, enrich the mind, and engage the heart.
The Cahoon Museum of American Art is located at 4676 Falmouth Road (Rt. 28) in Cotuit, MA. The museum’s opening hours from June 9 to December 19 are Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit Cahoonmuseum.org or call (508) 428-7581.