Last Saturday was a pirate-filled day. I took David to karate and read Polly and the Pirates while he practiced. Then we rushed home to pick up Diane and head out to Pippi Longstocking (who’s father is a pirate) at the Children’s Theatre Company. That night we watched Blackbeard’s Ghost and started a game of Sword and Skull.
After the play though, we went to the Science Museum of Minnesota to check out the Real Pirates exhibit. I’ve uploaded the photos to Flickr, so you can get an overview of the show there. They don’t allow flash photography, so I apologize for the graininess of the pictures. I figure I can go into more detail here though than I can in the brief descriptions Flickr allows, so here are my impressions of the exhibit.
It’s an impressive display. I wasn’t convinced that I was going to love it before we went in. Back in January, we took a trip to North Carolina to see some of Blackbeard’s old haunts (which reminds me that I need to get those pictures uploaded too) and visited the museum where the remains of the Queen Anne’s Revenge are displayed. After seeing that, I didn’t think I could get excited about the Whydah Gally, a ship I’ve never heard of. What the exhibit lacks in notoriety though, it more than makes up for in completeness.
The traveling exhibits that come to the Science Museum are always well-organized and tell a story. The exhibit begins with a short, but mandatory film that outlines the history of the Whydah, a slave ship named after the British colony in Africa from which it got its cargo, and ends by recounting its sinking and eventual discovery. As the narrator is still talking about the surviving bell that marked the wreck, the movie screen slides up dramatically to reveal the bell – still submerged in salt water – and the first room.
From there, Real Pirates has a couple of rooms devoted to the slave trade. It covers the African chiefs who sold members of their rival tribes to the European coastal colonies. It talks about the conditions on the famous Middle Passage between Africa and the Caribbean, even showing some of the manacles used in that journey. It was a harrowing part of the exhibit. They also explain why slave ships converted into perfect pirate ships when captured. They were fast, well-armed, and had lots of cargo space to hold treasure and crew.
From there, the exhibit moves to the Caribbean and a brief history of piracy in general. It talks about the economic, political, and social conditions that made piracy attractive to so many people. There’s a brief mention of women like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, but more focus is given to children and racial diversity, since those groups were actually represented on the Whydah.
Next, Real Pirates outlines the early career of Sam Bellamy, the captain of the Whydah and then goes into detail about pirate raids and the process of taking a ship. There are even role-players who roam the exhibit and stay in character as they talk about what it’s like to be a pirate.
After that, the exhibit turns to the Whydah itself, with a model of the ship and portraits of some of the crew members. Then there are interactive displays that let visitors spot worthy prizes through telescopes, practice knot-tying, and hoist the Jolly Roger.
There’s a life-size (or close to it) replica of the Whydah to roam through before you come to the treasure room, where you can touch coins raised from the wreck and see an impressive treasure chest filled with actual pirate loot. There are separate displays for gold, silver, and other jewelry and coins.
The exhibit then turns to the wreck of the Whydah in a storm and the deaths of most of its crew, but that’s not the end of the show. It talks about the trial of the survivors and then goes into detail about the discovery of the wreck and the experiences of the people who raised it. By the end, my mind was filled with information, so I admit that I was skimming past everything after the trial. (I’d already gotten a primer on wreck exploration at the Queen Anne exhibit anyway.) I did learn about a couple of Blackbeard connections though.
After the trial, Blackbeard protested the survivors’ death sentence by threatening to burn Boston to the ground. He never did, of course, but he did sink some ships around there. There was also an earlier link in Sam Bellamy’s career when he disagreed with a captain he’d teamed up with. Bellamy had no qualms about attacking English vessels, but the other captain did and severed the partnership. Edward Teach was one of the men who left with the other captain, but apparently (and surprisingly) he didn’t hold a grudge.
I learned a lot more than I thought I would. I’m no expert on pirates, but I know quite a bit and was surprised at how much I didn’t understand about how crews were organized or how boarding parties worked. But even if I hadn’t learned a single, new fact, it would be worth the visit for the treasure room alone, much less the other highlights like the life-size pirate ship and the knot-tying. It’s a great exhibit no matter what your level of expertise is.