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SouthCoast Today | The Standard-Times
April 14, 2021
NEW BEDFORD — Just a few minutes from the city’s waterfront sits a collection of films, photos, audio recordings and artifacts that tell the story of an industry not often seen firsthand by the general public: the fishing industry.
After closing in December, the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center reopens this Thursday with its new exhibit, “More than a Job: Work and Community in New Bedford’s Commercial Fishing Industry.” The center describes it as an “introduction” to New Bedford’s preeminent industry.
“The nation’s most valuable port has long deserved an institution dedicated to telling its story,” said Laura Orleans, executive director of the center. “The Fishing Heritage Center fills that void.”
New Bedford fishing industry
The exhibit explores the industry in New Bedford beginning in the 1900s by considering sustainability, labor unions, diversity, family, community and the “American dream.” It illustrates what the industry does and represents through the voices and stories of those in it, Orleans said.
“To be standing all day makes you tired. But sometimes when you are working, cleaning fish, you start thinking of your father or sometimes your mother and you think ‘I’ll send my check this week,'” said Lillian Riveira, a fish cutter, in one of the recordings that will play in the exhibit.
Orleans estimates they have 300 to 400 hours of audio recordings, which they plan to swap periodically in the exhibit so that visitors can hear new material.
Aurally, visitors will also get to experience the sound of the fog horn, a mayday call, or a vessel’s engine, which ticks interminably for those on board for long stretches.
Visually, visitors can view model vessels and various artifacts fishermen have pulled up in their nets, including a mastodon tooth and a Russian belt buckle. They can also view decades-old footage spliced with present-day film, which in combination show what has and has not changed in the industry.
One of Orleans’ favorite parts of the exhibit is a tall board with dozens of nicknames belonging to ship crew from Fairhaven and New Bedford, some of which have previously been displayed at the center. While some nicknames are funny, a few are ethnic slurs, Orleans noted.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting thing for people to talk about,” she said, adding that some aspects of the exhibit deal with some less celebratory, more contentious subjects, including the offshore wind industry and labor unions.
Sustaining the ocean’s resources
The executive director hopes people walk away from the exhibit with an understanding that for many people in the fishing industry, their job is their way of life. She also wants people to recognize that fishermen have been working “since the beginning” to sustain the ocean’s resources
“I feel like people come in often with a preconception that fishermen… don’t care about the environment,” she said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is put a human face on the fishing community and give people a sense that fishermen really depend on a healthy resource in order to fish.”
Thursday marks the “soft opening” before the exhibit’s official opening celebration in June, which will also mark the center’s five-year anniversary. Admission is free until July 1, when the center will start charging a fee of $5 or less, depending on age and membership status.
“I hope people will take some time when they’re here to pick up those handsets and listen to the voices of the fishing community because I think that people have amazing stories to share,” Orleans said. “Some of them are really funny, some are very poignant, and what I really like is that people get an opportunity to hear directly from people who live this every day.”
The new exhibit was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and Bristol County Savings Bank. Fairhaven Shipyard and Blue Fleet Welding donated time and resources, including building the exhibit’s working deck.
The center is open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Thursday through Sunday. For more information, visit www.fishingheritagecenter.org.