NEW BEDFORD – A new tide has come in.
After more than a decade in the works, the Azorean Whaleman Gallery will be unveiled and dedicated today at 5:30 p.m. at the Whaling Museum.
The only permanent exhibition of its kind in the United States, the gallery will chronicle the Azorean/American cultural exchange of the 19th century through whaling and its importance to the growth of the New Bedford area throughout the 20th century.
“We want to tell the story of the Portuguese Diaspora,” said Whaling Museum President James Russell. “Many people have been working hard and long to bring this Azorean Whaleman Gallery to conclusion.”
Made possible through a $500,000 gift from the Portuguese government in 1998, the exhibit will focus on a cultural overview of the Azorean Archipelago and the Azorean Diaspora, the whaling vessels that frequented the “western islands,” and the people that tied New Bedford to them, as related through the art and artifacts of both locations from the whaling era to the present.
Composed of about 120 objects, the exhibit will showcase art, artifacts, film and photography on the social, cultural and maritime ties that have connected the two sides of the Atlantic.
Many historic figures of the New Bedford Azorean community are also featured, including common seamen, masters and vessel owners and maritime businessmen. Many Azorean immigrants became integral elements of the city’s maritime, business, and social community.
Items displayed are both unique and diversified, ranging from a 35 million-year-old sperm whale tooth, a rare book of draughts of shipwrightry to a stuffed hawk, an indigenous symbol of the Azores, and numerous family items, such as the sea chest of Manuel Mendonça, an Azorean cooper who worked onboard an American bark in the 19th century and eventually settled in New Bedford. The chest is stuffed with personal belongings that are very telling of life at the time.
“The more you look, the more you see the connection back and forth,” said Gregory Galer, Vice-President of Collections and Exhibitions at the Whaling Museum. “It talks about specific people, vessels, personal objects… not just generalities. You can see how things work together. It is an integral approach.”
The core of the exhibit will be located in the Bourne Building, the largest building in the museum complex.
“To have it here, it is an important statement, literally side-by-side with the Yankee contribution to whaling,” said Russell. “It encompasses an important signal we want the community to hear.”
Visitors will be welcomed through a large Azorean Arch, which was quoined with volcanic rock from the islands.
A 30-foot-long Azorean whaleboat, the Pico, is also part of the exhibit. The vessel is believed to be have been built in San Francisco and then taken to the Azores. Eventually, it made its way back to the United States and it has been at the Whaling Museum since the 1970s.
“It may symbolize in many ways the relationship between the business world here and there,” said Galer.
The dedication event, which is free and open to the public, will start with a performance by local Portuguese traditional folk musical group Ilhas de Bruma at the Azorean Maritime Heritage Society’s Casa dos Botes, located at 25 North Water Street.
A parade will then lead guests up Johnny Cake Hill to the museum’s Bourne Building.
On hand at the ribbon cutting ceremony will be numerous elected leaders, including Governor Deval Patrick, and Portuguese officials. The Ambassador of Portugal in Washington, João de Vallera, will convey official recognition from the highest levels of the Portuguese government.
“This is a very unique moment for our Portuguese and Portuguese-descendant community because it represents the recognition, by a prestigious institution such as the Whaling Museum, of the role of enormous importance that historically the Portuguese people played in the era of whaling and in the history and heritage of his maritime region,” said Consul of Portugal in New Bedford Graça Fonseca.
For Arthur P. Motta, Jr., director of marketing and communications for the Whaling Museum whose family hailed from the Azores, it is with great gratification that he sees this chapter of shared heritage being told.
“The story between the Portuguese and the Americans is finally being told,” he said.
João Pinheiro, founder of the Azorean Maritime Heritage Society, described the space as “a dream come true.”
“It tells everyone about our rich and great maritime heritage,” he said. “I am so proud of it. We, Azoreans, are sea lovers.”
Two exhibits will also debut concurrently with the gallery unveiling.
Drawn From New Bedford: Arthur Moniz – A Retrospective will feature about 40 paintings and drawings celebrating the Portuguese-American Southcoast artist.
The Whaling in Faial, 1940-1984, is a traveling exhibition from the Azores examining 20th century whaling operations on the islands and its conclusion.
Azorean anthropologist Marcia Dutra, coordinator of the exhibition, said the display will not only feature the central aspects of Azorean whaling, but also its ramifications to other sectors, such as culture, art and tourism.
“I am very proud of the exhibition,” she said. “It is very important to bring with us here a little bit of the Azorean history and culture. I am very happy to be part of it and it is gratifying to see how important it is for the community.”
Russell estimates the Whaling Museum has spent more than $1 million dollars in temporary exhibits, programming, lectures and other cultural endeavors to deepen and promulgate this story.
“We’re not going to stop here,” he said. “The exhibit may change over time, as we continue to invest in it and look out for items. This is just the beginning.”
He said the gallery will lead to the development of additional programs and events related to American and Portuguese cultural exchange, which will span the nation.
On Oct. 22, the museum will welcome the President of the Regional Government of Azores, Carlos César, for the signing of a Protocol between the Azores, New Bedford and San Francisco that will establish a formal connection between the three areas, recognizing the strong historical and cultural Azorean connections across the United States.
The museum is also working with the Whaling Museum of Madeira to help facilitate the restoration of a Northern right whale skelecton that will be housed in Madeira.
“It will be very curious to see what else comes up,” said Motta. “It’ll definitely increase our knowledge of the connection this exhibit is telling.”
Lurdes C. da Silva
O Jornal News