Models and role models: The long history of taking to the water

Jun 25, 2019 | Charting the Past

“Models of Maritime Courage and Adventure: The People and Vessels that Built Our Community” runs through Sept. 22. Photo courtesy of Orleans Historical Society

By Lisa Cavanaugh

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Earning your living from the sea is an enduring Cape Cod tradition, and the Orleans Historical Society recently opened a special exhibition to celebrate that legacy: “Models of Maritime Courage and Adventure: The People and Vessels that Built Our Community” which will run through September 22.

Curated by Dr. Edith Tonelli, the exhibit brings together ship models, maps and other artifacts from the society’s collection, as well from other museums/private collectors on Cape Cod, to showcase the entrepreneurial spirit of living by the sea.

“I thought that we could broaden the theme of ‘models’ to include not only ships, but also individuals who were the role models for courage and adventure,” says Tonelli, serving as the society’s Interim Executive Director. “The people behind the ships are the inspiration for each of the sections of the exhibit.”

Tonelli, whose has a doctorate in American Cultural Studies and curating experience, worked with a committee for two and a half months to prepare and stage the exhibition. Different sections highlight eras in Orleans’ maritime history, starting with Native tribes, the Nauset and Wampanoag.

“Their vessels were dug-out canoes and when they first set out they couldn’t have known what they would encounter on the ocean,“ says Tonelli. “They were the sea-going heroes of their era.”

The fishermen section includes models of schooners that captains used for ocean fishing and the dories they carried aboard, but is primarily focused on the long history of shellfishing in Orleans. One prominent artifact is a circa-1902 photo of Orleans native Eben Cummings on board his skiff, bull-raking for quahogs. Taken by his brother, photographer H.K. Cummings, the photo is entitled “Taking Up The Rake” and is an arresting image of a man hard at work and in his element.

“We loved the idea of this photo of this amazing person being a big part of the show,” says Tonelli. “It really brings the concept to life, to have images like these in an exhibition.”

While many of the items are from the Orleans collection, the Chatham Historical Society is lending a beautiful model of a coastal barque from 1606.

“They had it made to represent a ship similar to one that Samuel de Champlain would have captained at that time,” says Tonelli. Champlain was a French explorer, navigator and cartographer who played a leading role in exploring the Atlantic shores and mapping the New England coastline.

“He was one of the first European explorers to come to the Orleans area, and what he saw here, he drew,” says Tonelli. “We have a copy of one of his maps of the region in the show, so having this model in our exhibit is really meaningful.”

Tonelli ensured that there would be a section dedicated to women who played a role in the seafaring history of Orleans.

“When you feature ships and ships’ captains, people don’t always understand that in order for the men to be able to go out to sea, there were women at home making that possible, or sometimes joining their husband aboard the vessels.”

No history of maritime bravery on Cape Cod could be complete without a mention of CG 36500, the motor lifeboat which was used by four Coast Guardsmen to rescue the surviving crew of the SS Pendleton which foundered off Chatham in 1952. The restored CG 36500 is berthed at Rock Harbor, and the show features artifacts about the famous rescue in its lifesaving section.

But Tonelli stresses that the show’s purpose is to share stories about people less familiar to us, “the folks we don’t often hear about — Native Americans, fishermen, women. They are the people who do their jobs on the sea but you may never hear their names.” she says. “I think the exhibit will be really interesting to visitors, and we hope they come away knowing more about the many brave people who have been models of courage and adventure here on Cape Cod.”

“Models of Maritime Courage and Adventure: The People and Vessels that Built Our Community” is open Thursday, Fridays and Sundays, 1-4pm, until September 22, 2019 at the Orleans Historical Society’s Meetinghouse Museum, 3 River Road, Orleans. For more information please visit:


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