Mystic Seaport: A Whale of a Museum

During COVID I didn’t have the chance to travel much, but when I did, I looked for outdoor experiences that felt much safer than indoor gatherings. Visiting Mystic Seaport Museum was the ideal excursion! Spread over several blocks in historic Mystic, Connecticut, there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out and enjoy this living museum at their leisure.

Historic outbuildings to explore on your own.

Mystic Seaport

There are very few opportunities to visit a working wooden ship seaport which makes Mystic Seaport a true gem.

What does it mean that it is still a working seaport? It means that you can see and talk to craftsmen who still build and work on ships the old-fashioned way: using wood rather than fiberglass and steel. Walk upstairs in the shipyard gallery and you can look down on the boats currently under construction. As you peek over the balcony ledge, you can also learn all about what the craftsmen are doing through the interactive displays of knots, rope, and wood set up for visitors on the upper level of the barn.

The Charles W. Morgan

Even more fascinating than watching boats being built is climbing aboard one!

The Charles W. Morgan is open for exploration and docents are ready to guide you through and answer any questions you may have. Talk to them! They have fascinating information to share!

The Charles W. Morgan

The ship dates back to 1841 and after an 80-year career in the whaling fishery, surviving several hurricanes, icebergs, neglect, and 38 voyages, the Morgan is still afloat! Imagine walking along the same decks as those brave sailors who ventured out in wooden sailboats in pursuit of whales!

I was surprised to learn about the whaling harvest process; it was NOT for the feint of heart! Once a whale was harpooned, the sailors had to heave the gigantic animal onto the smaller boat by cutting it apart in the water and hoisting it up on board. The water was freezing. Sharks were undoubtedly circling, and the work was hard, heavy and dangerous. Many lives were lost in these expeditions and to add insult to injury, many of the men onboard received little profit from their hard work, if any.

Remember that this was in the days when slaves were escaping the South; immigrants were arriving on shore poor and penniless, and venturing out as part of a crew meant being gone for many months with little assurance that the boat would ever return with bounty. Finding work on a whaling ship offered these men a bed and food (while it lasted), but the conditions were rough. The men who set out on these ships had few options available to them. Sailing out into the great unknown was a risk they couldn’t afford NOT to take.

Moby Dick

If you’ve ever read Herman Melville’s avant-garde novel about whaling, you’ll know all about whaling. There is much mention of the book in the museum’s indoor displays chronicling whale hunts. I hadn’t read the book but remedied that when I returned home from Mystic. It brought the museum to life in ways I wish I’d been privy to while I was there. So if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend reading it before you go, or…

Try to time your visit to coincide with the Moby Dick Marathon!

Imagine listening to Moby Dick while you’re standing next to whaling ships!

The Moby Dick Marathon is an annual event (during non-COVID times). During the event, Herman Melville’s epic tome is read aloud over 24 hours. Visitors are encouraged to take the stage and read a page or two, too. Now that I’ve read the novel, I’d love to go back and take part in this overnight event.

“Call me Ishmael…”

Figureheads and Scrimshaw

Whaling aside, anyone who loves folk art and exquisite craftsmanship will love roaming through the exhibits showcased in various buildings.

They look unearthly hanging here on their own, but they were quite the artistic form when these figureheads braced the bow of the ships.

Figureheads were popular art forms on 19th century ships. Early Dutch and English ships depicted many animal figures. The Spaniards followed with more religious figures, possibly as intended blessings for voyages ahead. Later, animals and human figures jutted out from the bows of these majestic wooden ships and were considered a popular art form. But alas, that ended in the late-19th century as steam-powered ships replaced sailing vessels.

In the room adjacent to these figureheads was a display of scrimshaw — intricate art etched into a whale’s tooth. I was fascinated to learn that sailors often used their downtime aboard ship to create pieces of art that they might sell when they arrived back at port. Many sailors made little, if any wages aboard these ships. As mentioned, room & board were the rewards for the hard work of whale-hunting. It was more than many of these men had available to them on land.

So they risked their lives hunting, killing, and harvesting whales bit-by-bit in the freezing Atlantic waters. They were lucky to have some blubber for heat and meat to eat. Anything extra they could salvage from the whale carcass was a bonus, of sorts.

Some carved intricate scrimshaw etchings onto the teeth of sperm whales. Why sperm whales? Because they’re one of the few species that have teeth! Other whales have baleen to filter their food through.

Sailors aboard ships that killed baleen whales used the jaw bone of the whales to make things like corsets, umbrella spokes, or other items that required a strong material that could flex. The baleen is made of keratin — the same material that makes up fingernails and horns.

Visiting Mystic Seaport Museum

My daughter and I spent a wonderful day at Mystic Seaport Museum. We were there on a brisk winter day and only saw a few other brave families facing off against the wind, imagining the icy, cold conditions of the whale hunts, and the massive amount of work required by the men who dared. The museum exhibits inside the buildings were fantastic and the docents were more than happy to tell us all about the boats displayed.

In addition to the Charles W. Morgan, there are a couple other notable vessels:

The Packard

By a stroke of good fortune, the Mystic Seaport Museum rescued the interior Benjamin F. Packard cabin from being destroyed!

Luckily, someone who understood the craftsmanship and detail in the pieces of the 244-ft-sailing vessel (twice the size of the Charles W. Morgan) and was able to salvage the captain’s cabin. It was restored and reassembled, and now visitors to the museum can see it inside the Stillman building of the Seaport Museum.

Again, the docents really bring it to life, pointing out smart engineering features that a visitor might otherwise miss — like the pitch of the floor and the design to carry water away from the captain’s office.

The Gerda III

“Be sure to find the Gerda III at the dock,” the young grad student volunteering in the Mallory building told us. “Hundreds of Jewish refugees were rescued on this ship. It’s really small, so a lot of people walk right by it, but take a look at it.”

I would. Absolutely!

My daughter and I peered at the names painted on the sides of the boats at the dock, and realized the docent had been right; we would have missed it if she hadn’t told us to look for it. She seemed much too small to have carried hundreds of refugees to safety. I could sum up Gerda’s history here, but instead, I’ll post a picture of the placard in front of it.

The Mystic Seaport Museum was the main reason I’d chosen Mystic, Connecticut as a getaway. My visit there as a teen was so long ago. I know we didn’t spend nearly the amount of time exploring as my daughter and I did.

I’ll go back again someday, hopefully for the Moby Dick Marathon. Or maybe just because there’s always more to see there; a living piece of history.

Do boats and the sea call you?


16 responses to “Mystic Seaport: A Whale of a Museum

  1. What an excellent, informative post, Julianne. I’ve been to Mystic but unfortunately didn’t have time to visit the museum. I can see how much I missed. –Curt

    • Whoops, hit enter too soon…

      I’ve always been fascinated by boats, and you did such a great job bringing these places and stories to life. Also, that Moby Dick Marathon sounds like a neat idea!

      • Doesn’t the marathon sound great?? Just imagine, listening to a really great story and then being able to walk aboard a real whaling ship! It was so hard to imagine how they could bring a whale aboard, even if it was piece by piece. The boat didn’t seem capable of struggles like that.

    • Very fun museum. We concluded at the planetarium and had a chance to think about using celestial navigation. I think I’d be lost in the middle of the ocean if they relied on me, lol.

  2. What an amazing museum. We have not spent nearly enough time along the seashore, especially since we are in the heart of the continent. We would love to explore a place like this and learn all about the whaling industry.

  3. Great post Juliann, and a fascinating and quite extensive museum. You’d like our Maritime Museum here in Jersey – we have a long affinity with the sea, notably the Newfoundland cod trade rather than whales.

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