If a museum has pirate artifacts, and those artifacts have serious competition for being the most interesting objects in the museum, you know you’re in for a good excursion. Such is the case with the North Carolina Maritime Museum of Beaufort, NC.
When you walk into the lobby, you’re greeted by volunteers and the sight of a great white shark lunging out of the wall, mouth gaping. Opened in the eighties, the building is almost all timber, evoking a sense of shipbuilding with wide beams and sturdy joints that rise up to a vaulted ceiling. The lobby is spacious, with enough room for a small exhibit on wildlife at the nearby Rachel Carson Reserve (you can visit the reserve later in the day by walking five minutes down the street and taking a water taxi over to the small slivers of islands that make up the preserve). The only time the museum feels cramped is on rainy days when crowds rush indoors off the nearby beaches.
Much of the museum is free-flowing with open exhibits related to life on or in the water. You can see the progression of ship-building in North Carolina, from dugout canoes carved from the natural shape of trees to today’s sailboats. Any reference to sailing in North Carolina would be incomplete without facing the danger of our wide, shallow sounds and constantly-shifting sandbars that ripped holes in the bottom of many a boat, and earned the Outer Banks the epithet “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The technological responses to these wrecks are on display in a slowly-rotating Fresnel lighthouse lens, and a life car (picture a large, battered tea kettle that could fit five people comfortably, but less sturdy), which was shuttled back and forth from shore to wreckage.
Past the boat-building, life-saving, wildlife, surfing exhibits, and a section about commercial fishery hung with nets, a whale skeleton swims in the rafters. Echo, the 33.5-foot sperm whale washed up on North Carolina’s Cape Lookout back in 2004. After a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy), Echo was taken in by natural sciences curator Keith Rittmaster for conservation. The process involved documenting, burying, exhuming, and cleaning the bones and took nearly a decade. Echo’s remains transformed into a memorial to the living whale, one of the most complete re-articulations in the country. Under the dome of Echo’s ribcage, you can learn about the local whaling industry; use interactive touch screens to learn what whale products were used for, see a hefty cauldron used for boiling whale oil, and explore examples of scrimshaw carving on a sperm whale’s long, curved tooth. Perhaps best of all, Echo’s heart is there, preserved by plastination — if you picked it up, it would fill your arms. And if you’re there on the right day, a curator might even take it out of the case.
Towards the back corner of the open area is the Maritime Museum’s crowning jewel — a collection of artifacts from Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge (since you’re a friend of the museum, you can simply call it the QAR). Blackbeard roamed the West Indies and America’s east coast towards the close of the Golden Age of Piracy. Shortly after blockading all of Charleston with his small flotilla, he ran aground in Beaufort Inlet and ended up abandoning two ships and many crew members. The crew was eventually rescued, but the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank beneath the waves and remained there undisturbed until November of 1996 when she was rediscovered. On exhibit are plenty of classically pirate-y things: A fully-recovered cannon, handfuls of imperfectly rounded bullets and cannonballs, and gold flourishes from their guns. But they also have artifacts that give a glimpse into daily life: Pewter plates, glass onion bottles, pottery sherds, and a tidy set of nesting weights. In addition to the artifacts, visitors can learn about how they recovered pieces from the ocean floor. There is a diorama of the (still in process) excavation site and a miniature lab. Sometimes a conservator takes questions while doing the minute work of an archeologist with small tools and precise motions.
If you’re still curious about all things maritime, tucked at the very back of the building is the library. Imagine the refuge of a well-read captain who has finally retired to his home port, and you have a good idea of what this spot looks like. With two stories of shelves filled with books, sailing instruments on the walls, a comfortable leather sofa, and a table meant for drawing up schemes, it’s one of the best-hidden gems in Beaufort.
Your last stop is an extension of the museum across the street. Smelling pleasantly of shaved wood, the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center is a workshop that allows visitors to look over the shoulders of expert craftsmen at work on boat making and restoration. Supplies lean against the walls, and specialty tools each seem to have a place. If you like, you can watch until closing time as the craft of wooden boat building — and everyday maritime history — continues before your eyes.
Location: 315 Front Street Beaufort, NC 28516
Admission: Free, donations welcome.
Hours: Monday-Friday 9-5
Closed Thanksgiving, December 24-26, and January 1.
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Megan Dohm is a freelance writer and photographer from North Carolina. When she has any spare time (and sometimes when she doesn’t), you can find her learning by wandering museums, talking to strangers, or driving backroads. Her most recent project is a series of longform articles on the lesser-known parts of the Blackbeard story called Long Way Around.