Community, Public History, and the Failure of the Whaling Ship Progress
13 August 2020 – Dan Gifford
The importance of community undergirds nearly every corner and crevice of public history. From spatial communities bound by common geography to cultural communities of shared identity and lifeways, we almost instinctively understand that museums, archives, oral history projects, and other public history products require community engagement and engagement with communities. The reverse is also true: practitioners who work without the input of key community stakeholders often stumble in their efforts, cut off from the nourishment of meaningful collaboration. Even the fact that the word “community” has definitional elasticity adds strength to our craft, offering us a nimbleness to engage diverse constellations of communities (LGBTQ, BIPOC, people with disabilities, youth, and more) through our outreach, research, scholarship, and public-facing enterprises. But truthfully, none of these observations were on my mind when I began researching my book The Last Voyage of the Whaling Bark Progress: New Bedford, Chicago, and the Twilight of an Industry (McFarland Press, 2020), a project that ultimately asked me to consider the role of a community in the failure of one whaling museum and the eventual success of another.
Instead, my initial focus was on the fascinating fact that a New Bedford whaleship—a whaling bark named Progress—traversed freshwater canals, rivers, and the Great Lakes to Chicago in order to be displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was a story I stumbled into while doing genealogical research on my own community of ancestors. My introduction to the Progress came from my great, great-grandfather’s New Bedford obituary, which in turn led me to discover that city’s community of whaling captains, agents, and merchants during the industry’s twilight years in the late nineteenth century. More specifically, I encountered a once-revered community living through dark days by the 1890s, when both whaling’s labor and traditions were becoming increasingly anachronistic in Gilded Age America.
The more I explored this dwindling fraternity of whalemen, the more I realized there was another important facet to this story. The Progress wasn’t just displayed at the Columbian Exposition. It was conceived and presented as a whaling museum. And that meant all those questions I ask students in my museum studies courses could be applied to this largely forgotten case study from over a century ago. What is the role of a community (then or now) in the success or failure of a museum? What happens when a museum becomes separated from the community it interprets, commemorates, and memorializes?
In 1890s’ New Bedford those still leading an increasingly abandoned way of life wanted to offer a faithful representation of their trade on the world stage. Early plans for a museum at the fair made it clear that the Progress was meant to be this community’s paean to American whaling. Thousands turned out for the Progress’s departure as it began its journey across North America to Chicago. On that blustery day in June 1892, few would have questioned the assumption that the whaling industry would be gloriously presented and lauded at the most important world’s fair in the nation’s history.
But it is worth pausing on that day to recognize a few key details. It actually wasn’t New Bedford that was sending the Progress to the fair. Instead, a syndicate of Chicago investors, led by a Windy City coal baron named Henry Weaver, bought the whaling bark and financed the enterprise. Ultimately the museum that the Progress became lay in the hands of Chicago men, not whalers. And with the whaling industry a ghost of what it had once been, those time-honored museum loadstones of local memories, traditions, and community knowledge were also disappearing. What would this mean for the Progress and a didactic museum dedicated to whaling that was originally envisioned by those so intimately involved in the trade?
Things started off well. This last voyage included a series of intermediate stops as a ticketed attraction. Curious sightseers in Montreal, Buffalo, Racine, and Milwaukee all got a chance to visit the whaling museum before its big debut in Chicago in July 1892. That first stop in Montreal seemed to portend the kind of museum the New Bedford Board of Trade (the city’s whaling elites who sold the Progress to Henry Weaver) expected for such a worthy industry. The press emphasized an almost encyclopedic compendium of whaling instruments and tools, and thoroughly embraced the notion that whaling was inherently interesting because of its romantic past and rugged je ne sais quoi. If New Bedford was guilty of industrial hagiography when it came to their local whaling industry, the early days of the Progress’s final voyage did little to challenge that notion. I found myself quietly rooting for this version of the museum—something that attempted to capture accurately the dangerous labor performed by the remnants of a whaling community.
But as my research continued I could see this was not to be. After the first showing in Montreal, each additional westward stop away from New Bedford and toward Chicago seemed to push the Progress further from the concept of a faithful representation of whaling and the whaling industry. By the time the whaleship arrived in the waters of Lake Michigan the transformation into a museum of exotica, oddities, and maritime hodgepodge was nearly complete. A banner announced “10,000 marine curiosities between decks” and press accounts now emphasized beautiful seashells, a mummified Australian boy, a giant sea turtle, and myriad other objects that were decidedly not tools of the disappearing trade. The Progress was moored on the Chicago River for several months prior to heading to the fairgrounds. By then even its New Bedford whaling crew had been replaced with freshwater sailors from Chicago’s schooners. One exception was a non-white crewman who—in an appeal to public appetites for racist exoticism—the museum promoters chose to present to public audiences as a “Fiji King” because of his head-to-toe tattoos. According to the museum brochure, the man was the first such royal to grace Chicago.
Even though this museum of marine fantasias and displays of Otherness was a far cry from the original vision, could New Bedford at least feel validated that their former whaleship had made for a popular attraction? They could not. The Progress was a failure on all fronts—a relic from a dying industry few cared to remember, and an unmitigated financial disaster that lost its investors a fortune. The vessel became a running joke in the final years of the nineteenth century. At one point the once-proud whaling bark was listed for sale in the classified ads of the Chicago Tribune, just above the notice, “Wanted—A well trained driving goat.” Fire and dynamite eventually sent it to the bottom of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Calumet River.
Some may wonder why I have devoted a book to documenting such a fiasco. I believe that while we rightly highlight good public history, failures can instruct us, too. The Progress serves as a cautionary tale about becoming detached from our core communities, however we define them. Within a few months of the charred remnants of the Progress settling into a muddy Lake Michigan grave, the people of New Bedford gathered and began to plan a whaling museum in their own city. I do not view this as a coincidence of timing, and today the New Bedford Whaling Museum is a vibrant center of whaling history, science, and education. The physical and psychological distance between the Columbian Exposition and the wharves of New Bedford absolutely mattered.
Ultimately, I hope that my book sparks conversations about how to honor groups of laborers that may not be ready for their final eulogy or want a museum to become their mausoleum. I trust that contemporary curators can extract value from a microhistory speaking to us more than one hundred years later about how to present—and not present—an industry and people in transition. Modern museums like the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry & Labor and The Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, expertly interpret the more recently declining industries of steel and coal, respectively. Like the New Bedford Whaling Museum, they are extremely successful because their exhibits and interpretive frameworks are deeply rooted in the communities that surround them, built through partnership and collaboration with workers and their descendants. These museums shine where the Progress failed, light and dark revelations of the same lesson told across the span of more than a century: our connections to community can never be forgotten or lost.
~Daniel Gifford, Ph.D.’s career spans academia and public history, including George Mason University, George Washington University, and the Smithsonian Institution. A scholar of American popular culture and museums studies, he currently teaches at several universities near his home in Louisville, Kentucky.