Erotic Scrimshaw Art at Vancouver Maritime Museum

The Vancouver Maritime Museum is currently running an exhibition called “Tattoo and Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor”.

Scrimshaw is the art of engravings made on ivory whale teeth, developed by 19th century whalers. The term can refer to several related practices; the linked article is a fascinating introduction. Melville’s Moby Dick mentions “Lively sketches of Whales and Whaling scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale teeth or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale bone and other Scrimshander articles.”

Some of the scrimshaw pieces in the VMM exhibit contain nudity and erotic scenes. One local mother became “disturbed and troubled” by the exhibit and has launched a one-woman crusade to shut down the “whale bone porn” (her phrase) exhibit. The museum arranged the display so that small children wouldn’t see, and sensitive visitors could avoid, the racy stuff, but that’s not good enough for the “extremely disturbed” crusader. The museum has admirably rejected the censorship demand.

A museum curator says they own even racier stuff not included in the show. “The museum has ‘more graphic’ examples of scrimshaw, she says, but these remain hidden downstairs in the museum’s basement. They include depictions of creative candlestick use and what Ms. Owen cautiously describes as ‘the act.’ They will likely never see the light of day.” That’s too bad.

The Tyee has a rave review of the exhibit, focusing mostly on the tattoo side.