Vancouver Mom Offended by Museum’s “Whale Bone Porn”

March 28, 2013
By

Here’s a new twist on the sadly familiar refrain of one person demanding that a cultural institution remove images she considers inappropriate: A mother from Vancouver, British Columbia says that a local museum is displaying “whale bone porn,” which has left her “disturbed and troubled.”

Erotic scrimshaw

Recently, Ann Pimentel took her two children, ages two and three, to the Vancouver Maritime Museum, where they viewed an exhibit called Tattoos & Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor. Scrimshaw, the largely forgotten art of etching pictures on bone or teeth, was widely practiced by 18th and 19th century whalers, who had an abundance of time and materials but a marked lack of female companionship. In addition to ships and scenery, then, scrimshaw artists specialized in erotic images ranging from Gauguinesque portraits of partially nude island women to downright bawdy depictions of sexual acts. The Vancouver exhibit includes a selection of these racier pieces in a case well above child height that the National Post terms “prudishly dim.” Additionally, a sign next to the case warns: “Hide Your Eyes! These pieces of scrimshaw are not intended for children.”

Pimentel, however, feels that the museum should have placed warnings on its website and at the entrance to the exhibit. Since her visit, she has posted negative reviews of the Maritime Museum on various websites including Yelp, TripAdvisor, and VirtualTourist. Although she told the National Post that she would be satisfied if the erotic pieces were segregated in an adults-only room, on TripAdvisor she opined that “these pieces of ‘art’ should be removed.”

For its part, the Maritime Museum has tried to handle Pimentel’s concerns with equanimity. In a response to her TripAdvisor review, executive director Simon Robinson said that while museum staff would add “much more prominent signage” about the disputed pieces, the exhibit will remain intact:

The objects in question are highly representative of the kind of scrimshaw craft that was popular among mariners in the 18th and 19th centuries and as such we feel that they have an important and integral role to play in describing and informing on the tradition of historical scrimshaw.

In fact, curator Patricia Owen told the National Post that the museum collection holds even more explicit examples of erotic scrimshaw which were left out of the exhibit to keep it mostly family-friendly. Meanwhile, the press coverage of the story has given the museum international publicity that it couldn’t have bought, including a bit from the Colbert Report earlier this week:

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.