Exploring the whalers’ art: Scrimshaw enthusiasts from around the world gather in Massachusetts

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Scrimshaw on whale tooth.

NEW BEDFORD, Mass.—For three days, from May 15-17, 2009, an enthusiastic gathering of art lovers at the New Bedford Whaling Museum will pursue one objective: to encourage the enlightened appreciation of scrimshaw as an art form, as a historical phenomenon, and as a genre of collecting. The 20th annual Scrimshaw Weekend is an opportunity to share insights and confer about scrimshaw, the whalers’ distinctive and evocative occupational art form.

Scrimshaw is the name given to the artwork crafted by whalers at sea, using the ivory, bone and baleen of captured whales. While the most familiar type of scrimshaw is a sperm whale tooth engraved with pictures, scrimshaw also includes practical and decorative objects of all kinds, from canes, to swifts, to furniture. The annual Scrimshaw Weekend hosted by the New Bedford Whaling Museum is the world’s only regular forum dedicated to this indigenous shipboard art form, attracting collectors, curators, antiques dealers, history buffs and enthusiasts from four continents who gather in a friendly and collaborative atmosphere in one of the nation’s preeminent maritime museums.

“As the scrimshaw capital of the world, the Whaling Museum is the perfect setting for this event each year,” said Dr. Stuart Frank, Senior Curator and Moderator. “We bring curators, collectors and enthusiasts together from all over the world to share insights, experience and new discoveries. It’s the one occasion on which newcomers can learn about scrimshaw in depth in a relaxed atmosphere, and seasoned connoisseurs can explore nuances unavailable elsewhere.”

The Scrimshaw Weekend begins on Friday afternoon, May 15, with “Scrimshaw 101 – An Introduction for Newcomers and Refresher Course for Seasoned Hands,” from 1-5 p.m., with Dr. Frank, Senior Curator of the Whaling Museum and Director of the Scrimshaw Forensics Laboratory. On Friday evening, at 8 p.m., Ray Egan, Folk Art collector from Boothbay, Maine, will deliver the keynote address, “Discipline in Collecting: What I’ve Learned During 40 Years.”

The schedule on Saturday, May 16, includes a full day of plenary sessions in the Museum Theater from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a range of topics, including the history of scrimshaw, sources, physical properties and surface characteristics, standards of forensic examinations and authentication, detection of fakes and forgeries, recent discoveries about Old Master scrimshaw artists, and current market trends. The day concludes with a reception and banquet from 6-8:30 p.m. and an evening program entitled “Scrimshaw at South Street Seaport Museum,” presented by Nina Hellman, trustee of the Nantucket Historical Association, at 8:30 p.m.

On Sunday, May 17, there’s an optional all-day field trip: a hosted, behind-the-scenes visit to scrimshaw collections in Rhode Island at the Warren Historical Society and the Providence Public Library.

The fee for the entire Scrimshaw Weekend, including Museum admission, scheduled meals, and all Friday and Saturday sessions, is $315 (Museum members $275). The Sunday field trip is $110 for everyone. Or you can enroll in “Scrimshaw 101” separately for $50 ($35 for members), including the Friday evening keynote. The Saturday banquet and evening program is $60. Participants who enroll for the entire Scrimshaw Weekend are invited to attend “Scrimshaw 101” and the Saturday banquet at no extra cost. (These prices are good through May 1, 2009; add $50 for all registrations after May 2.) Student scholarships are available.

Ronald Bourgeault, of Northeast Auctions, underwrote tuition-free student scholarships, providing young newcomers an introduction to scrimshaw and to special-interest seminars at a major museum.

To receive the full schedule of events or to register, click on Scrimshaw Weekend at www.whalingmuseum.org, call 508-997-0046 ext. 100, or e-mail frontdesk@whalingmuseum.org. The deadline to register is May 8.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the world’s most comprehensive museum devoted to the global story of whales and whaling. The cornerstone of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located in the heart of the city’s historic downtown at 18 Johnny Cake Hill and is open daily, year round. The public is invited to become part of the Whaling Museum online community at flickr.com, facebook.com, and blog at http://flukesandfins.wordpress.com.

For a complete calendar of events, visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum online at www.whalingmuseum.org.

More Images:

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Scrimshaw is the whalers' distinctive and evocative occupational art form.
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Crimper made by a scrimshander.
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Scrimshaw art from Warren, R.I.

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