Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sag Harbor Whaling Museum

The past ten days were very busy and almost every night I was falling asleep soon after my kids: still, I didn't feel there was a day I wanted to sit at home by the beautiful weather and went to a couple of interesting places.

It had been in my plans for a while and eventually I visited the Whaling Museum in Sag Harbor.
Lately I am observing that - since we are in the US - my kids learn to know different animals than they would in central Europe, starting with the "quirrl" (squirrel), the chipmunk (a novelty for me, too), many fun birds (not just that flying rat someone calls pigeon) and - even if not live - the whale.
Admittedly, I had the impression that the history of whales is more or less a history of men, but it was nevertheless fascinating to learn more about this mammal; there are different kind of whales and their bodies were used for the most various purposes like fuel for lamps or tennis rackets, cosmetics and fashion products, like corsets (and here you find me totally against it).
Whaling itself was a native Americans' technique*; unlike English settlers, though, native Americans were using parts of whales they found on the shore. Englishmen learned the technique, added a good knowledge of the seas and ship building to that (with a hint of sea imperialism) and began whaling as we know it from literature.
So it came that, in the late XVIII century, Sag Harbor was flourishing as the shipping and whaling port it was born as, becoming the third largest in the world, with the stereotyped harbor atmosphere including a red light district, a number of taverns and a wide-spread rum commerce that remained charecteristic for quite a while (think about rum row during Prohibition!).
As I said, the whole fascination with whales has for me a too masculine aura.

So, let me tell you about the Museum, which was the most pleasant surprise: once the house of wealthy whaling-ship owner Mr. Huntting, it's one of those example of classic architecture applied (revisited and re-interpreted) to American buildings.
The entrance recalls the front of a Greek temple with its Corinthian columns - beautiful, but screaming for restoration (just to give you the right feeling: when walking around Venice you'd be always looking for the next brick falling down!)
Inside there are plaster decorations on the ceilings and a spiraling wing of stairs that leads (visually, at least) to a circular window on the top.

(This picture is from the Museum web-page, no chance of taking a pic with the sun coming in)

I couldn't climb it to satisfy all my curiosity as it was closed to the public - it houses a masonic Lodge - and most probably I would have been in big trouble coming down, totally dizzy.
Nonetheless it was great to be there at noon, when the sun was shining directly through that glass, illuminating the entrance with a Pantheon-like effect. I couldn't tell if the window was made of alabaster, because it was pretty sparkly...

Whaling history aside, documenting the adventurous voyages (some as long as a year just to spot a couple of whales!), displaying harpoons and scrimshaw, there was a collection of objects from the past belonging to Mrs Sage, later owner of this building and philanthropist: old toys, doll's house furniture, clocks, some fine Limoges porcelain, a number of native Americans' artifacts...
After visiting the museum - empty, except for a few people - we took a walk in Sag Harbor.
It felt like a familiar place from my childhood with lots of nice restaurants, little galleries, colorful shops; of course the view of the bay was gorgeous, but at the same time it was very "hamptonish" and Main Street was a polo-shirted walk, with no evident difference between lower and upper Main Street, so the effect was less literary than in Moby Dick and more elegant  than it probably used to be.

Maybe the reason is that the history of whaling was too short, as in the mid-XIX century oil was discovered in California and whalers, whaling boats and anything connected to the commerce of whales were not needed anymore.
Of course this is very personal, but I might have been less impressed than in Greenport.

Little detail of this nice day, I got myself a CD called "I love Long Island", with a number of traditional songs dating to the XVII and XVIII centuries, sang by the "Connecticut Peddler". 
A bit odd for some ears (but hey!if there are people listening to the Chieftains...) unusual perhaps; anyway I enjoy listening to these songs about traditions, battles and popular themes when I am driving.

*Here I am referring to the North American Continent, it is obviously widely spread around the world.


matthew houskeeper said...

Years ago I worked on a boat that spent the summers in Sag Harbor. I haven't been to hw whaling museum in years.
Nice post!

Mari said...

Thank you, I am trying to read more about Sag Harbor...and hope to hear some more stories!