Installing The Art of Seeing Whales

Entry begun as plane takes off from Philadelphia for Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky, Friday, July 4, 6:35 pm

[We were rocking pretty hard when as we landed through gusty winds on the Providence flight into Philadelphia. Though the sky here is now clear and blue with only a few light clouds, this plane was jerking hard from side to side before we got off the ground in Providence.  I know that wind is invisible, but I was surprised to find our takeoff more more jerky than trying to follow the Sirius.  This airplane feels like an Indy car on a dirt track.  I hope that big lumbering guy who squeezed into the cockpit knows what he is doing.]

Last Thursday morning, my feet more steady on the floor after a good night’s sleep, I got up to the Center Street Gallery of the Whaling Museum as soon as I could to see how the installation was going and make any final decisions. How great to be working with Christina, Melanie, Mike, Scott, Sarah, Jordan, and Juliette. This was the morning Melanie came in with the beautifully stenciled title of the show, and she and Scott and Sarah discussed exactly how high to put it over the 1617 Dutch painting and 2009 Chinese cut out that open the show. The font Christina chose is perfect: elegant yet easy to read. 

Exhibition title on opening wall

Exhibition title on opening wall

Mike’s idea of putting the Piercefield’s Women of New Bedford over the introductory wall panel has worked out equally well, though it is a little high and catches a bit of glare.

Melanie Correia with introductory panel and The Women of New Bedford

Melanie Correia with introductory panel and The Women of New Bedford

Several sections of the show were looking good but needed adjustments to make the most of them. The first narrative section, following the rhythm of a typical whaling voyage out of a harbor, into the sea, and back again in its aftermath (subtitled “The Perils in Between”) had one work too many for the available space.  So Christina had reluctantly removed the despondent depiction of a truncated Nantucket sleigh ride, a decision with which I entirely agreed. We would now remove that entry from the text we had drafted for the wall panel. J. S. Ryder’s A Perilous Ride would have to wait for some future ehxibition.

Getting "The Perils in Between" on the wall

Getting “The Perils in Between” on the wall

The next section, subtitled “Cutting the Whale,” was being beautifully hung, all six works popping off the wall and off each other in just the way I hoped they would.  The visceral force the Kish and Christodoulou Ahabs relate equally well to the historical portrait of Captain Francis F. Smith, and the inset scene of the cuttnig-in in his portrait relates extremely well to three more modern cutting-in depictions.

Squaring up the Cutting-In Section

Squaring up the Cutting-In Section

Back in the far corner, Zellig’s Will he Perish? was far from the Dutch and Chinese works at the other end of the gallery, but that made her large whale’s eye staring right back at the viewer even more dramatic and effective. I had not planned it that way, but seeing the eye of the whale right next to our three “Mother and Infant” works is also very powerful. When I first saw the “Mother and Infant” hang I had wondered if Klauba’s The Pod could go above, rather than below, the drawing of the mother and infant right whale from Western Australia (because the Klauba is relatively dark and could be more clearly seen in the higher, brighter light). We tried this change, but the installers felt to it disturbed the balance of the three works in relation to each other, so we returned the Klauba to its original spot.

Mother and Infant section next to Zellig's eye

Mother and Infant section next to Zellig’s eye

            The duo of Celia Smith’s Moby-Dick and The Great Hunter by Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanayok in the back at the far left was even better than I had imagined.

The Great Hunter by Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanoyok above Mary Smith's Moby-Dick

The Great Hunter by Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanoyok above Mary Smith’s Moby-Dick

When I had come in on the day before I took the ferry to Oak Bluff, we had been trying to decide which of the old 17th-century maps depicting whales as monsters would look best in one of the niches next to a window. But that was when Christina had mentioned that the absence of Callahan’s charcoal drawing of the Skin’s Path had been an oversight, not a curatorial decision. We decided that if we did use the Callahan, it would occupy that space very well on its own, which certainly turned out to be the case. After the decision to include it, I wrote a wall label for it under the heading “Seeing the Whale Up Close.”

Aileen Callahan, Skin's Path, charcoal on paper, Elizabeth Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Aileen Callahan, Skin’s Path, charcoal on paper, Elizabeth Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

The one decision about the next wall between the windows, “Seeing Whales as Inspiration,” was whether to include three or four works. The four we had selected worked well together thematically but they were a little too crowded for this vertical slice of a wall. We reluctantly took out Christodoulou’s Whiteness of the Whale III, creating a lyrical top-down progression from Ellis’s sketch for the White Whale mural, to Piercefield’s From the Headwaters of the Eternities, to Hodgkinson’s Squeeze of the Hand.  All three works remind us of the whale’s ancient history long before humans existed, flourishing in an ecological system from which human mammals have much to learn, and even revere.


Top down from Ellis to Piercefield to Hodgkinson

Top down from Ellis to Piercefield, to Hodgkinson

With the major decisions now having been made about the works on the wall, Melanie could now produce the wall texts while Mike was finalizing what went best in the back-to-back eight-foot-long display cases. Everything he had in each of the cases looked very good to me–a constellation of objects from four centuries and four continents in one lovely juxtaposition after another. But Mike is a perfectionist, and this was his final shot at critiquing and tweaking his display.

Mike Dyer contemplating one of two display cases

Mike Dyer contemplating one of two display cases

Mike is a master of mounts and of placement as well as of pictorial content.  I loved watching him raise one piece a little and lower another, move one of them forward and another a little back.  Some of these works now had their “tombstone” labels to help me know what they were,  He asked if I would like to see anything added to either case–which would require removing something already there.  Out of everything currently in the cases, he said one he could most easily spare was the powerful image by Rockwell Kent to which he had opened one volume of the three-volume set published in 1930.

One of the treasures in one of the glass cases

One of the treasures in one of the glass cases

Kish's Fleece and Daggoo in one of the cases

Kish’s Fleece and Daggoo in one of the cases

When Mike asked if we had something worthy of replacing the Rockwell Kent, I immediately thought of the twelve new Matt Kish drawings of the crew of the Pequod I had brought with me from northern Kentucky on Monday (the Melville Society Archive acquisitions for 2014). I brought out the handy little album book in which Kish had presented them.  I slowly paged through one after another so Mike and I could see which, if any, would be suitable additions to the current contents of the case. As soon as we got to Fleece, in which the cook of the Pequod, presents the “whale as a dish” requested by Stubb on a platter, Mike knew it belonged in the case. As we looked through the other drawings, we gravitated to Tashtego, for the contrast of his bright orange color, and Daggoo, for the harmony of its black and blue coloring with that of Fleece. Fleece’s whale and Daggoo’s blood red harpoon spoke well to the spirit and content of the rest of the show, on the walls as well as in the case, and the two fit together perfectly in the space vacated by the Kent. Both visually and symbolically, the two brand new Kishes “nailed” the two display cases in the best possible way. 

The next time I walked up Center Street to the high brick wall of the Museum, I would know that the exhibition up inside those upper windows would be nearly complete..

Outside wall of the Center Street Gallery of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Outside wall of the Center Street Gallery of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

I was happy to have gotten a photo of the trio who had done most of the heavy lifting, Melanie Correia, Scott Benson, and Sarah Kendall. 

Melanie Correa, Scott Benson, and Sarah Kendall after they had gotten most of the works up on the wall

Melanie Correia, Scott Benson, and Sarah Kendall after they had gotten most of the works up on the wall

[As I am completing the draft of this entry in my journal, our plane from Philadelphia is taxiing into the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky airport exactly 22 hours later than I was scheduled to arrive from Charlotte the niight before.  I will discuss some of the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of the flight that would have brought through Charlotte in part 6 of this blog.]