The mission of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society is to educate and interest all the public in the historic interaction worldwide of humans with whales; in history of Old Dartmouth and adjacent communities; and in regional maritime activity. To accomplish this the Society shall collect, preserve and interpret the artifacts and documentary evidence of these endeavors; maintain a whaling, maritime and local history museum, maintain a library; promote and disseminate historical research; and accept historic sites where appropriate.
Founded in 1903, the Museum's rich history reveals an intimate relationship with the communities it serves. Motivated by civic pride and a desire to preserve the artifacts and narratives of the region, the museum was founded by the children of the progenitors of the American whaling industry. The Old Dartmouth Historical Society was established "to create and foster an interest in the history of Old Dartmouth (now the City of New Bedford, Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven and Westport, MA). This area incorporates more than 185 square miles with a population exceeding 180,000. Today, members hail from many more communities.
The steady growth of its collection, programming, membership and physical plant illustrate the museum's relevancy to these communities. A touchstone to the region's past, the museum has evolved as a crossroads through which diverse communities intersect, conveying their rich cultures. The Museum can claim many superlatives amongst its holdings including the world's largest: library of whaling logbooks, prints, journals; collection of scrimshaw; Japanese whaling art and literature outside of Japan; Dutch Old Master marine paintings in the New World. The Museum's complete coverage of 19th and 20th century whaling technology makes it a global center for scholarly research. The Museum is home to the world's largest ship model, Lagoda, a half-scale whale ship built in 1916 by the aging shipwrights of New Bedford's famed fleet. The Museum displays four species of complete whale skeletons, including a Blue whale, the world's largest mammal plus a mother and fetus of the highly endangered Northern Atlantic Right whale.
The magnitude of the collection was a critical factor in the establishment in 1996 of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, in which the Museum played a primary role. The Museum also takes great pride in its docents and volunteers who, like the founders, are united in their civic pride, sense of place and esprit de corps. The Museum's longevity has burnished its mission as a historical and cultural treasury. A keeper of the region's collective memory, the Museum preserves communal engrams, memory traces of the many communities that settled in this port. The Museum teaches lessons relevant to the pressing global issues of today, including the consequences of natural resource exhaustion, the diversification of industry, and tolerance in a multicultural society.
The Museum serves its community first and foremost, but welcomes an ever-growing number of national and international visitors. As the region's first purpose-built historical attraction, the museum continues as an original ambassador for the community. Through its educational programs and activities, the Museum looks to the future by engaging children, teaching that they are part of the fabric of the community, critical to its growth, and destined to be a chapter in its history. The Museum is a forum for whale and now fishing conservation, research and symposia. Its cultural outreach extends around the world, with close ties to Japan, Portugal and the Iñupiat people at the Arctic Circle. The role the New Bedford Whaling Museum will play in its second century is no less critical than that of one hundred years ago. In doing so, the Museum will be recognized as a compelling destination that inspires all visitors to reflect on the complex issues that shaped the past, remain critical today, and inform a sustainable future.
The Museum seeks to advance understanding related to the influence of the whaling industry and the port of New Bedford on the history, economy, ecology, arts, and cultures of the region, the nation and the world. We will expand our capacity to tell the stories of the many diverse communities that shared in the creation of this history, through excellence in our collections, scholarship, and all forms of public engagement. In doing so the Museum will be recognized as a compelling destination that inspires all visitors to reflect on the complex issues that shaped the past, remain critical today, and inform a sustainable future.