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HomeLIFESTYLEAs Art at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Algae

As Art at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Algae

Wheatley, Thomas Jerome (1853–1917). 1882’s Vase With Marine Life Made in Cincinnati, Ohio. [+] 11-inch (28-centimeter) earthenware. Gift Of Martin Eidelberg, 2020, Metropolitan Museum Of Art, 2020.64.188.

Summer beaches in New England feature a motif that appears familiar and timeless: sand, water, and large, wacky clusters of seaweed. It is fair to assume that most beachgoers do not spend much time pondering the history of the scenery they take for granted; however, the New Bedford Whaling Museum has now accomplished this task. Scientifically, socially, politically, and finally artistically, the New Bedford, Massachusetts, seaweed exhibit is as informative as they come.

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A Singularly Marine and Fabulous Produce: The Cultures of Seaweed is a comprehensive exhibition centered on seaweed that traverses a number of artistic periods, concentrating primarily on 19th-century decorative arts. The title of the exhibition is derived from a quotation by Henry David Thoreau describing seaweed, and much of the artwork depicts New England’s coastal culture during his lifetime. Silver, ceramic, glass, and exquisite scrapbooks made from whalebone commemorate the evergreen seaweed of today’s shores.

Once-Known Maker (Monterey, California). Album Made From Whale Bones, Late 19th Or Early 20th Century… [+] 4.25 x 3.25 inches (10.8 x 8.3 cm), Bone, Paper, Seaweed, and leather Gift Of The Kendall Whaling Museum, 2001.100.2292 Collection of New Bedford Whaling Museum artifacts.

The 1878 painting Seaweed Gatherers by American artist Clement Nye Swift, which emphasized the significance of working-class people in the industrial era, served as the exhibition’s initial inspiration. However, this number increased to 30 total lenders of seaweed art for discussion, 15 of which were renowned institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Design Museum, and Yale University, as well as local powerhouses such as the Mystic Seaport Museum, Newport Historical Society, and Portland Museum of Art.

The final exhibition, curated by Naomi Slipp, Douglas and Cynthia Crocker Endowed Chair for the Chief Curator, and Maura Coughlin, Northeastern University, features over 125 works from 1780 to the present that are solely concentrated on seaweed.

Seaweed Gatherers by Clement Nye Swift (American, 1846–1918), 1878 Oil on canvas, 41 by 93 inches (104.1 [+] by 236.2 centimeters), New Bedford Whaling Museum, Gift of the Russell Memorial Library, Acushnet, Massachusetts, 2015.9.1.

This in-depth exploration reveals a vast extent of seaweed-themed expression, ranging from works by notable American artists such as John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth to collages, albums, and photographs created by amateurs. There is even a seaweed-and-wax sweater that has been cast in bronze, as well as a photograph of a spectacular seaweed dress that may not have withstood the test of time.

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It is not beautiful—Amory Nelson Hardy (American, 1835–1901), Woman Wearing a Seaweed Dress, circa 1880s. Private collection, cabinet card, 6.5 x 4.25 inches (16.5 x 10.8 centimeters).

The 12 academicians who worked on the 222-page catalog (along with sponsors such as the Maine Seaweed Council and Main Coast Sea Vegetables, Inc.) can now delve much deeper into the significance of each historical moment and the continued relevance of seaweed as a driver of climate change in the present day. Consider the history of the coastal crop the next time you visit the shore. The exhibit will run throughout the summer and autumn, concluding on December 3, and seaweed will likely still be on the beach after that.




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