Rare Scrimshaw on Display in VMI Museum
Corset busks, pie crimpers, and pin cushions are among the novelties carved from whale teeth and bones on display at the VMI Museum. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.
LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 19, 2012 – A collection of engraved and carved whale teeth and bones – scrimshaw – is now on display in the Kohen Gallery on the 100 level of the VMI Museum.
Received by the museum in 1988 from the estate of Henry M. Stewart ’35, the items are exhibited in the museum for the first time. They are located adjacent to the Henry Stewart 19th Century Antique Firearms Collection and represent a side interest of Stewart in these works of art created by sailors on 19th- and early 20th-century whaling ships based mostly in New England.
“It’s an opportunity for people to see something they’d otherwise have to drive hundreds of miles to see,” said Col. Keith Gibson ’77, director of museum operations. “You’re just not going to see it in Virginia.”
VMI’s lone connection to the 19th-century whaling industry is through one of its early professors of physics, naval officer and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), who charted the migratory patterns of the whales. Since it enabled whalers to predict where whales would be, his work changed how whales were hunted, Gibson said.
The items on display represent three categories of scrimshaw. Some are engravings on sperm whale teeth of ladies or historical scenes, of whaling or the Revolutionary War, for instance. Other items are carved bone novelties – a pin cushion shaped like a chair, a pie crimping tool, a corset busk. A third category, whaling tools, includes items carved from both bone and teeth.
“The teeth were the only part not commercially usable,” said Gibson, and they were plentiful on the whaling ships. The exhibit includes engravings on walrus tusks, another form of scrimshaw, as well.
Also on exhibit in the Kohen Gallery are displays related to World War II Gen. George Patton, who attended VMI for a year, as well as alumnus, sculptor, and New Market Battle veteran Moses Ezekiel.
The VMI Museum is open to the public free of charge 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.