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All mortal greatness is but disease: Scottish Maritime Museum delves into industrial whaling history

Opening 18 November
Scottish Maritime Museum, Harbour Road, Irvine

The Scottish Maritime Museum delves into Scotland’s forgotten history of industrial whaling in ‘All mortal greatness is but disease’, a major new exhibition opening on Friday 18 November.

The exhibition, whose title is taken from Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ explores the stark, ambivalent story of industrial whaling.

One of the cruellest and most gruesome endeavours inflicted upon the natural world, industrial whaling pushed some species almost to extinction. In the Antarctic alone, nearly 1.6 million whales were killed between 1900-1960.

Through history, science, photography and art, ‘All mortal greatness is but disease’ focuses on Scotland’s substantial but largely forgotten contribution to this industry and the Scots for whom whaling provided an unrivalled opportunity for prosperity and adventure.

The exhibition, which goes on show in the Museum’s vast, Victorian, glass-roofed Linthouse on Irvine Harbourside,concludes with a look at whales and whaling today across the globe.

Bilyana Palankasova and Miriam Matthews, Exhibitions & Events Officers at the Scottish Maritime Museum, explain:
Scotland’s participation in commercial whaling and the global impact on our marine ecosystem is a bitter and unsettling story but one we wanted to unpack for discussion with visitors.

“Through ‘All mortal greatness is but disease’, we hope people gain a greater understanding of industrial whaling, the many complexities involved and how it still impacts us today.”

Though subsistence whaling dates back to the Neolithic period, the history of Scottish whaling began a thousand years ago when Vikings hunted whales in the North Atlantic. Whilst whale hunting practices advanced in other areas of Scotland, these Viking whaling traditions were still in use in the Hebrides until the 20th century.

Industrial whaling in Scotland began in earnest in the mid 19th century as industrialisation led to increased demand for whale oil, particularly for lubricating machinery, lighting and heating. In Dundee, the largest jute manufacturer in the world, it was also a vital part of the process of softening jute fibres.

Whale by-products, which also included household, fashion and medicinal items like soap, perfume, whalebone corsets and parasols, also became essential to newly industrial urban societies.

Setting out from the Scottish whaling ports of Dundee, Leith and the Shetlands to hunt blues, humpbacks, seis and southern right whales and seals in Antarctic waters, conditions were brutal.

Whalers faced the danger of the animals, unpredictable weather and seas and desolate locations. Injuries and death were not unusual.

Once harpooned, whales were ‘played’ and chased until death. Carcasses were hauled to processing stations and the blubber stripped in a process akin to ‘peeling a banana’ according to one whaler’s recollection. A whale the size of a railway carriage could be deconstructed in just twenty minutes.

From the mid 19th to mid 20th century, advances in equipment included electric and explosive harpoons, sonar and helicopters making hunting more efficient than ever.

One of the most dramatic and devastating advances though came with the shift from land-based stations to vast ‘factory ships’.

Onboard these vessels, which extended the length of one and a half football fields (170 metres long), crews of up to 4,000 men could catch, butcher and process 200 whales a day. Many of these vessels also included their own meat and oil processing plants.

By the 1950s and 1960s, whale populations had decimated and whaling was no longer profitable. In 1982, a global moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted under the International Whaling Commission (IWC) although many countries continued the hunt for cultural, commercial and scientific purposes.

‘All mortal greatness is but disease’ includes an audio installation and photographs, artworks, artefacts and textiles drawn from the Scottish Maritime Museum’s collection and on loan from the South Georgia Museum and the Scottish Fisheries Museum.

A number of events accompany the exhibition.

Meet the Artist with Caroline Hack
Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 December
Working in print, textile and handmade book formats, artist Caroline Hack creates works inspired by ‘Moby Dick’ and her research into European Arctic whaling.
Caroline will share what informs her personal, visual response to this powerful subject including her visits to British, European, American and Canadian whaling sites, museums and research centres.

‘All mortal greatness is but disease’ runs from 18 November until 19 February 2023.

Content Warning
A section of the this exhibition features graphic images that some viewers might find disturbing.

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 Issued on behalf of the Scottish Maritime Museum by
Joanna Harrison, Mobile: 07884 187404

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