A Surprise of Scrimshaw - The Hull Maritime Museum’s Old Collection

Above photo supplied by Hull Maritime Museum.

Listen to the audio version of this article with music as read by Wolfy O'Hare:

Rising up behind the city you can see is another place, teeming with a vibrant, yet partially vanished life. But you have to know how to look; it’s not easy seeing the past, you can become so easily lost between the tumbling array of facts and your own imagination. At this moment you cannot enter Hull’s Maritime Museum, as it is closed for refurbishment as part of Hull’s Maritime City Project but I know this building well; it sits at the heart of the city close to what was once a thriving dock at the centre of a vigorous commercial world. Did I say that you have to know how to look? Indeed, the dock is now a park, shortly to be smoothed back into the outlines of its former configuration by the Maritime Project – to make sense as an exhibit as well as an amenity. Transformation is a voyage, if you look over your shoulder, ‘Queen’s Gardens’ is already becoming the past.

The Maritime Museum’s treasures are currently being counted, packed into storage and considered in terms of how they are to be seen in the future. As with any refurbishment, discoveries are inevitable. If you pull yourself up into any loft, no matter how familiar the house – the stored past promises surprises; always there will be something previously unseen that someone considered important enough to keep; even historians indulge themselves in subtle attachments. There promises to be new discoveries amongst the familiar sights – and we will be the generation that enjoys them.

The current building was never built as a ‘museum’ of course – it was a place of vigorous industry and civic prestige. It was the headquarters of the Hull Dock Company built in1872 and the physical embodiment of extraordinary confidence and power. Everything about it is grand; this is architecture that demands to be noticed and almost expects a deferential attitude as you enter the foyer. But I must gloss over the array of exhibits, the possibilities of maritime wonder and horror that always waited for visitors and doubtless will be arrayed again for the public after refurbishment. This building seeks to embrace a whole maritime history of Hull and its environs; this was and remains a beautiful ambition.

However, I must close my eyes to the history of the Royal Navy, to the tools of whaling and the vastness of that industry’s brave and savage reach – the suggested noise and clamour of the sea cannot fail to overwhelm you; the building houses fear, majesty, terror, skill, determination and tears. To leave this place without being moved is impossible; you have seen extremes, you have brushed close to the remnants of a million deaths.

Museums express themselves as well as display their artefacts; this might be by design as curators strive to present exhibits in ways that engage and inform the public - yet all buildings have an inner life; the way light falls in a quiet corridor, or how sound carries in the presence of wood and marble, all influence perception as you walk alone or in company from room to room. Sometimes it is the small details that propel us into the most intense meditations; we are expectant but unprepared for what truly surprises us – the disarmingly personal, the intimate face of history.

In the midst of this vastness, there used to be a still space. A cabinet of glass and small wonders. A collection of Scrimshaw. Scrimshaw is often an echo of love carved on bone – a token for someone at home progressively fashioned with a knife in a few hours of precious idleness at sea. The ocean rages beyond the door but here within all is candlelight and concentration. A whaler bends low, quietly intent over a section of ivory. Over the rolling weeks, he catalogues intricate designs that evoke moments of tender, untouched stillness. Or he found relief for anger, exhaustion and the ever-present fear of mortal destruction. He would have never dreamed of himself as a ‘folk artist’ – this is beyond the scope of one individual – this is the expression of a whole community, a vigorous shanty carved with ink, lamp-black and bone. Ladles, walking sticks, toys and love-tokens from the sea teemed in this cabinet – we meet the past in person in order to know it.

Whale tooth scrimshaw
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hull Maritime Museum

The teeth and bones of whales and other marine animals are the melancholy, blank canvas of Scrimshaw; faced with unoccupied time a whaler would turn to the plethora of materials around him. These raw materials had to be prepared, cleaned and polished before being carved and engraved with intricate lines marked with crude ink or the soot from candles. Human lives seep into such artefacts and what remains of us tells the certain story of what concerned and delighted us. Tools, too were made in the form of Scrimshaw. The ‘Scrimshandering’ whaler had an eye for what was practical; the quotidian life enjoyed its share of flair and decoration. Bones that had moved freely in the depths of three oceans often became more than the tender talismans of idle hours.

Whale tooth scrimshaw
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hull Maritime Museum

A detail catches the attention and disturbs something on the floor of the mind – the gleam of ivory and the image of lovers meeting on a quayside reaches beyond the display cabinet; you have made a profound, universal connection. Two stories have joined your own; the untold, unknown tale of a vanished whale and that of a young man, perhaps barely twenty-five, who may or might not have lived to his thirtieth birthday. A holding in mind of disparate strangers resonates beyond the museum corridor. In the space of thirty seconds there has been a rapt and significant communion in telescoped time.

But there are other things to see. We must move on to the next room, where the light falls a different way and we might find ourselves conversing quietly with another aspect of history. Perhaps we might walk patiently to the next museum because in Kingston upon Hull the past has a treasured presence and a vibrant voice. It is the mark of a good museum where the past not only invites and intrigues - but stands upright, walks towards you and says with immediacy, clarity and candour, “Here I am.”

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Wolfy O'Hare

Poet, Musician & Broadcaster. "All Bright Beginnings," a poetry collection spanning forty years of writing, has been published by Wild Pressed Books, Kingston upon Hull.

Wolfy plays Fiddle, Harp, Whistle, Flute, Serpent, Viola da Gamba & sings like an Elephant Seal. Folk & Early Musician and member of 'Fiddler's Elbow' Band

Presenter of 'LIVELINE with Wolfy' at Hull Kingston Radio . Member of Fiona Mills' 'Unheard & Uncensored' gang at BBC Radio Humberside and contributor to BBC Radio Humberside's 'Sunday Morning Programme'.