I was so floored by the beauty and content of Michael Dyer’s new large-format, illustrated art history book, I had to learn more.
Daley: So how did you get the idea for a book on whalers' art and journals?
Dyer: Since my first days as a curator at the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon in the early 1990s, I’ve found whalemen’s illustrated journals to be compelling, evocative and absolutely fascinating. Once I knew of their existence … I wanted to share what I was seeing with others.
Daley: The research here is extensive.
Dyer: This was a 20-year project. Once I was able to identify the objects, or examples that I wanted to highlight, I read any associated text closely, and compared each whaleman’s experience, as much as I could determine it, to see if patterns emerged.
One of the benefits of studying whalemen’s manuscript art is that it often has an associated context — that is, the logbook or journal where it appears. Because Yankee whaling is so extensively documented … it was simply a matter of running each illustration, logbook, or journal, through the system. There is a system of basic documentation and sometimes all it takes is a vessel name, or a geographical locale … to get the basics. Once the basics are identified, I brought my experience as a whaling historian to bear on the scene I was looking at.
Daley: How did you select which images to use?
Dyer: That came down to certain criteria, including personal preference, geographic locale, relevance to the chapter or subject, or in some cases, simply the brightness of the colors.
Daley: Where did the art come from?
Dyer: Most of the art is from the combined collections of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, the Kendall Whaling Museum, and any materials acquired by the New Bedford Whaling Museum since the merger of the two museums in 2001. There are some examples from other institutions including … Yale University, the Nantucket Historical Association, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the Providence Public Library, Mystic Seaport and the Peabody Essex Museum.
Daley: What’s so important about whaling art and journals? What can we learn from them?
Dyer: … Most people are interested in them for their genealogical value. Others, however, find large quantities of primary source text valuable for subjects like race relations, gender studies, cross-cultural contacts, animal population surveys, ice-edge research, meteorological facts, ocean studies, tides, currents and whatnot.
[Other] scholars are interested in the books themselves — the ink, paper, bindings, penmanship or other forensic evidence. One researcher who was interested in textile history looked extensively at the patterned cloth that whalemen sometimes used to cover the books.
Daley: What would spark a sailor to draw something? What would they draw with?
Dyer: Drawings were often made first in pencil and then later colored in, either with colored pencil or watercolor paint. Sometimes the whole drawing is done in colored pencil. Sometimes it is done in ink. Sets of watercolor paints were easily available through any nautical stationer, and those trained at navigation school learned calligraphy and drawing as part of their education.
It … seems that some whalemen drew extraordinary whaling events. Some drew particularly large whales. Some made events up entirely in wishful thinking — killing whales was how they earned their pay, so it’s not, perhaps, unusual that one would dream of great whaling.
Daley: I was surprised at the women on board — were women on board more often than we think?
Dyer: Many wives of captains accompanied their husbands on shipboard. This was especially the case in the late 1840s and into the 1850s. Once bowhead whaling the Western Arctic was open, men could be gone from home for many years. Honolulu was a decent place to stay and many women would stay there while their husbands made a seasonal cruise to the Arctic … I think there were more women on shipboard than even we know now.
Daley: What illustrations are your favorites?
Dyer: I like Chapter 7, the gallery of whaling scenes. Every one of those 50 pictures is a gem.
Daley: Do any journal passages stand out as particularly funny?
Dyer: I really like the anonymous sailor on the ship Java of New Bedford in 1854 who calls himself “My Lord Tom Noddy – Duke of Bomcack,” which after extensive research and some creative hypothesizing on my part, I’ve translated into: “A fool who wastes his money on gambling and prostitutes.”
Daley: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Dyer: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania. I earned a BA in American History from York College of Pennsylvania and a MA in American Studies from Penn State Harrisburg.
I began studying maritime history in the late 1980s, mostly because I didn’t know anything about it, and wanted to know more about why I didn’t know anything about it… On our family vacations to New England, with visits to Mystic Seaport, the Cape Cod National Seashore … an interest in maritime culture was sparked in me.
To find such a gigantic, important, influential, and pivotal field of study so poorly represented in American education prompted me to pursue it as a career. I’ve always liked museums and can’t imagine working in any other environment.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Learn more at https://www.whalingmuseum.org.
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and book columnist. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @laurendaley1. Read more athttps://www.facebook.com/daley.writer.