by guest columnist Sarah McDonough

Students in this year’s Exhibition Planning class were given a challenge: choose an image that inspires you from the photographs in Historic New England’s exhibition, “The Camera’s Coast,” and use it as a jumping-off point for a full-blown exhibition plan. Snapshots: 15 Takes on an Exhibition is to take place at the Tufts University Koppleman Gallery May 6-18, 2014. Opening reception Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 5:30-8pm. See the Facebook page here.

The research process for this class has really shown just how much untapped history there is out there that most people aren’t aware of. While reading for my exhibit, A Little House on Deck: The Curious Journeys of Whaling Wives and Children at Sea, I discovered dozens of surviving diaries of women and girls who sailed as passengers on whaling ships. Reading through accounts of their adventures, it’s frustrating that so many of these people would not be remembered except for their writing, or the snippets of stories remembered about them. Here’s a particularly interesting one:

In 1846 the whaling ship Powhattan set out of Martha’s Vineyard for a hunt off the coast of New Zealand, on what appeared to be a cursed voyage. Shortly after leaving, the ship sailed into a hurricane that lasted a month, and by the time they sighted land a significant portion of the crew, including Captain William Mayhew, had somehow contracted smallpox. No doctors would board the floating death trap, but luckily the captain’s wife, Caroline, was on board. After nursing the crew for another month at port she decided that it was time to keep going, and navigated the ship herself until her husband had recovered enough to return to his duties. The entire crew completed their expedition and made it back to Massachusetts alive.

Caroline Mayhew

Caroline Mayhew

These are fascinating stories, but hard to tell; they’re fragmented, fact mixed with fiction, lacking enough linear plot to make a book or a movie. But a museum exhibition can combine these pieces of story and allow them to come to life in an interesting way. It’s been an enlightening experience making that happen.