Just a few steps away from Greydon House, you can enjoy one of the most unique museums in the country: an unexcelled portal for casting an eye deep into Nantucket’s past.
We’re referring, of course, to the Nantucket Whaling Museum on Broad Street, run by the Nantucket Historical Association. Closed in January for upgrades, the museum has once again reopened its doors to educate islanders and visitors alike about the dramatic historical industry with which the Little Grey Lady is most associated.
The Nantucket Whaling Museum: An Introduction
Thanks to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—reliably on the shortlist of the greatest American novels ever written—people the world over know that pint-sized Nantucket was once the global epicenter of whaling. It was a homegrown industry that began in the early 1700scentered on local right whales, then quickly set its sights on the great toothed leviathan known as the sperm whale, possessed of greater quantities of higher-quality oil but also a truly formidable quarry. As North Atlantic whales in the vicinity were hunted out, Nantucketers took their whaleships farther and farther afield, covering the World Ocean in pursuit of pods on voyages that commonly lasted several years.
It’s this dangerous and much-mythologized industry, in steep decline by the late 19th century, which the Nantucket Whaling Museum delves into to fascinating degree. The museum encompasses one of Nantucket’s standout historical structures: the Hadmen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory, built in 1847 on the heels of Nantucket’s Great Fire. The galleries here display a vintage whale-oil lever press—the only one of its kind still in existence—as well as exhibits on the refining of whale oil, candle making, and other Nantucket industries of the era, such as boatbuilding and blacksmithing.
The centerpiece of the Whaling Museum is the nearly 50-foot-long skeleton hanging from the ceiling: the remains of a sperm whale that washed ashore on the east side of the island, in Siasconset, on New Year’s Day 1998. Below stands a comparatively puny-looking whaleboat, built in the 19th century in New Bedford. Here you can also learn about one of the most famous whaleships in history, Nantucket’s Essex, whose sinking by a sperm whale in 1820 inspired Melville’s novel about the Pequod.
Another highlight? One of the most extensive collections of scrimshaw—carved whale ivory and walrus tusk—anywhere.
Visiting the Whaling Museum
Needless to say, we highly recommend a visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, which in addition to its permanent and temporary exhibits also hosts regular events such as the Food for Thought lecture series. Through March 31st, the museum’s open Thursdays through Sundays from 10 AM to 4 PM; from May 25th through December 31st, it’s open daily, expanding to 9 AM to 5 PM during the peak season.
With boutique accommodations at Greydon House, you’re within a harpoon’s throw of this treasured Nantucket institution (though don’t go throwing harpoons around, OK?). Come join us and enjoy an amazing history lesson or two!