Blog of the Collections Department

Fun Fact Friday – Irma Bentley

Back in 1935, the museum purchased a lot of figureheads, including a three quarter length figure of a girl with a carved knotted rope around her waist.  Like the other figureheads, her story was unknown until a chance visitor happened upon her in the late 1930’s.



Upon visiting our museum, Mrs. H.L. Shaw recognized this figurehead as one that had been on a ship built in 1908 by her father, George Edward Bentley, of Port Greville, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia.  The ship was named Irma Bentley after George’s daughter who was a welcome companion on sailing trips as she did not get sea sick.  The figurehead was carved by an Alfred Nichols and was modeled after young Irma.

After George Bentley sold the ship, the figurehead was lost until the museum purchased it in 1935.  If not for one of George’s daughters visiting the museum, we may never have know the history behind it.  We later received confirmation from George’s wife and daughter Irma about the identity of this ship and Irma was even able to pay us a visit in 1983.


Irma (Bentley) Murray visiting with her figurehead, photograph from Daily Press

Way Back Wednesday

figurehead carving demonstration 1970's, two museum staff Robert Brushwood (designer, artist) Clifford Hancock (draftsman, technician) (2)

Back in the early 1970’s, our education department hosted a figurehead carving demonstration at the museum.  Two museum employees were tasked with making the figureheads; Robert Brushwood (designer, artist) and Clifford Hancock (draftsmen, technician).  Because these four photographs show the interesting development of creating a figurehead, I decided to post them all together, rather than four non-related images.  This first one shows Brushwood created the figurehead image they wish to use.

figurehead carving demonstration 1970's, two museum staff Robert Brushwood (designer, artist) Clifford Hancock (draftsman, technician)

This is great because it of the massive size of the Cyprus log!  We wondered if it possibly even came from the park.figurehead carving demonstration 1970's, two museum staff Robert Brushwood (designer, artist) Clifford Hancock (draftsman, technician) (3)

And here Hancock is, getting the initial indentations completed.figurehead carving demonstration 1970's, two museum staff Robert Brushwood (designer, artist) Clifford Hancock (draftsman, technician) (4)

And for the next stage, the design in applied to the log and the chainsaw used to cut out the shape even more.  An earlier blog I posted shows this figurehead much farther along in the process, which can be viewed HERE.

Artifact of the Month – Oil Painting

While whaling is not my favorite maritime subject to ponder, it is an important one.  Whaling provided (and in some cases still provides) needed food and supplies for people.  That is why this month’s artifact of the month is a whaling painting.


The piece was painted by Bonaventura Peeters the Elder in 1645.  He was a Dutch painter born in 1614.  Three of his siblings were also painters; older brother Gillis and younger siblings Catharina and Jan.

Portrait of Bonaventura Peeters, ca 1700-1720, courtesy of Netherlands Institute for Art History

Portrait of Bonaventura Peeters, ca 1700-1720, courtesy of Netherlands Institute for Art History

Bonaventura was probably a pupil of Andries van Eertvelt, a Flemish painter, and later of Simon de Vliegher, a Dutch painter.  In 1624, Bonaventura and brother Gillis became masters in the Painters’ Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp, and in 1639 they worked together on “the siege of Calloo”, a piece for Antwerp’s Town Hall.  Unfortunately, Bonaventura had a pretty short life and died in 1652 at the age of 38 after suffering from ill health.

Part of what makes our painting so special (besides that it is a beautiful piece of art) is that it is currently the fourth oldest known whaling painting.  The probably location for the scene is Smeersburg (“Grease Town”), a Dutch whaling settlement on Spitzbergen, founded around 1621.  It is unlikely that the piece portrays a specific event.  Rather, it was likely intended to highlight the importance of arctic whaling to the 17th-century Dutch economy. Equipped with the best ships and well organized to profit from whaling, the Dutch dominated the industry throughout the century.  Though the harpooned whale in the center of this picture is not accurately portrayed, the Dutch were the first to produce realistic images of whales, based on studies performed after a whale washed ashore.

Visit from the Coast Guard

Every year we give a tour to a group from the United States Coast Guard’s International Maritime Officer School; an interesting group who are always so curious and interested in our collection, especially our boats in the International Small Craft Center.  Usually our Chief Curator asks what countries the group is from and then proceeds to point out boats from those countries, but he was not here this year so we did a little something different.

TMM; Coast Guard visit to ISCC; 05-26-2015 (1)

Artifacts set out, photo courtesy of Jim Wetherbee

TMM; Coast Guard visit to ISCC; 05-26-2015 (21)

The Coast Guard group, photo courtesy of Jim Wetherbee

This year we set out a couple tables with artifacts from the countries the group was from, giving them a taste of the scope of our collection.  And don’t let the first image fool you, they swarmed the tables when they first came in, but by the time this was taken they had already dispersed in the Small Craft Center.  Three of the objects made a particular impression on the group.



The first was this Balinese cremation pylon carving.  It is quite colorful, and quite startling if you come upon it suddenly.  It was acquired by Alexander C. Brown while on a world voyage on the schooner, Chance.



This next piece is one of the jewels of the collection and is a Persian planispheric astrolabe, ca 1790-1791 by Hajji Ali.  The planispheric astrolabe could be used to find time, as a direct-measure instrument by surveyors, topographers and navigators, to simplify astronomical calculations and, in the case of this instrument, to facilitate the calculations that must be performed to determine the exact time for prayer.



The third piece is a model made entirely of cloves.  It was made by two Thai officers attending the Army Transportation School at Ft. Eustis in 1957.  It smells wonderful and the case was made with a little piece that slides over a hole at the top so that people can easily take a whiff, but then recover it to keep the scent inside.  This model is also a favorite among staff.

Extreme Deep – New Exhibition

Looking for something fun to do with the family (or by yourself) this summer?  We have a new exhibition that explores the mysteries of the deep, Extreme Deep:  Mission to the Abyss.  It opened May 16 and will remain here until September 7.


Entrance to the exhibition

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View interesting creatures of the deep

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Explore RMS Titanic using ROV cameras


Learn about the vehicles that can travel to the deep

There is plenty to see and do in this exhibition all while learning about deep sea exploration, so come on by and check it out!


National Maritime Day

Happy National Maritime Day to all!  Today is a day where we celebrate the maritime trade and those who engage in it, especially those mariners who have lost their lives in service.ln22-jpg635164826126522885


On May 20, 1933, Congress set aside May 22 as National Maritime Day as it was May 22, 1819 that the SS Savannah began a transatlantic journey and became the first steam powered vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  It took the ship 29 days and four hours.


SS Savannah, drawing by Samuel Ward Stanton

Way Back Wednesday

bf11 11-1998, post restoration (5)

In 1998, we sent our Dutch Tjotter to the Netherlands for restoration work.  This image shows it upon its return.  The boat was built ca 1913 by Van der Werff Brothers in Sneek, Friesland, Netherlands.  It is currently on display in our International Small Craft Center.


This image shows a group of Steiff animals in a Noah’s Ark display in 1970.  We have several Noah’s Ark sets in the collection, from toys to dioramas.

ac1 April 4, 1988 (3)

As we have so many large and heavy objects, moving artifacts by crane or forklift is a fairly regular affair around here.  Being moved in this photograph is a 6-pound British Naval Cannon ca 1756-1781.  This was one of many artifacts that were pulled from the York River in the 1930’s.

ac55 (3)

Here we have another cannon that was recovered from the York River being displayed.  It looks as though the other objects in the case may also be recovered items, making for an interesting display in the 1930’s.


Artifact of the Month

May’s artifact of the month is a pair of French Signal Pistol’s, pretty unique and interesting little weapons.af167-01While we do not know much about these pieces, we did discover that the maker is the Royal Armory at Tulle.  Most of the marking has been worn away, but “M …..De Tulle” is still visible.  There is also an anchor on the butt of the handle of both pieces.

Original accession photo

Original accession photo

For those who are not familiar with how these pistols would work (like me until today) magnesium or other flammable powder would be put into the flare cup at the end, as well as the channel.  Once the lever was pulled back the flint would create a spark that would travel down the channel and into the cup, creating a very bright and short-lived flame.  Depending on the chemicals one used in the cup, you could even change what color the flame was.

This type of signal pistol appears to be quite rare and so I have not been able to find any more information for it.  If anyone out there has more information that they would like to share, please let me know.

Artifact of the Month – Sea Quadrant

Our April Artifact of the Month is also a new object to our collection and something we are all very excited about.  It is a sea quadrant made and sold by George Adams, Sr.


There are a couple of factors that make this particular instrument so special.  The first is the fact that it is the only known sea quadrant made by George Adams.  It was hand-signed, dated and serial numbered by Adams himself, which can still be very clearly seen.  It also includes the earliest known trade label for George Adams, which is one of the largest I’ve ever seen on an object.  The three extra mica windows were wrapped in a piece of paper that appears to be an early writing sample of Adams, making it all the more interesting.


George Adams, Sr. trade label


Serial Number, date, and signature of George Adams


The other factor that makes it so important and interesting is the provenance of the piece, its history.  The piece was purchased in 1774 by François Boyer, who was a Professor of Navigation and Mathematics at the French Royal Navy school in Lorient.  He kept a journal of his travels in England, as well as trade cards a receipt for one of his purchases.  What is most amazing is that the sea quadrant stayed with the family until it was sold at auction in 2014.  They had it for 240 years!  That is astounding for something like this.  And even better, the piece seems to have seen little to no use as it is in almost pristine condition, including the original case.

Receipt for the sea quadrant

Receipt for one of Boyer’s purchases during his trip


Trade card for Fraser


Trade card for Henry Shuttleworth

Adams stated that his purpose in creating this instrument was to correct the “inconveniences and difficulties” of using a back-staff and to provide an instrument that was more affordable than the expensive octant.  He and another instrument maker, Benjamin Cole, were both trying to create new sea quadrants.  And despite their efforts, this new instrument was never readily adopted by navigators, which has led to their rarity.  As I stated before, this is the only known sea quadrant by George Adams, and there are only three known by Benjamin Cole.




As you can tell from Jeanne’s face, we are all very excited about the arrival of the sea quadrant!  And very important to note is that purchases like this would not be possible without kind benefactors.  In this case, Peter Ifland, who has worked with the museum for years regarding scientific and navigational instruments.  We lost him last year, but he will forever be immortalized for his contributions in this field and for every wonderful thing he has done for us.


Raising the Mast

For those who follow our blog, you may remember that last year we had a Kenyan dhow added to our collection.  When the piece came to the museum, it was placed in the back of our International Small Craft Center in a temporary position.  Yesterday we spent a good portion of the morning getting it into a better spot for display and raising the mast.

14-28-01 raising the mast 02 Apr 2015 (1) 14-28-01 raising the mast 02 Apr 2015 (3) 14-28-01 raising the mast 02 Apr 2015 (4)


Our staff deserves some major kudos for this as they figured out how to rig it just by looking at photos we had taken when it was in D.C..  Now our visitors can enjoy seeing the dhow in all its glory!

More information on the dhow can be found HERE.