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Pirates invade the San Diego Natural History Museum

The Whydah Bell provided confirmation that the wreck site was indeed the Whydah, which sank in 1717.
The Whydah Bell provided confirmation that the wreck site was indeed the Whydah, which sank in 1717.
Photo by Matthew Prefontaine courtesy of Premier Exhibitions, Inc., used with permission

The San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) is host to the popular exhibit Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. The exhibit takes visitors on the journey of the Whydah, a 1700’s ship that originally set sail from Africa to deliver slaves to the Caribbean in 1715 and was captured by Captain Sam Bellamy, who was one of the most successful pirates of the time.

The exhibit has a treasure trove of historical pieces that were discovered in U.S. waters by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. Clifford discovered the shipwrecked Whydah in 1984 and it is still today the only fully authenticated recovered pirate ship to be discovered in U.S. waters. The ship sank April 26, 1717 in a powerful storm off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. One of the important artifacts that was used to authenticate the ship, the Whydah’s bell which is inscribed “Whydah Gallery 1716”, is included in the exhibit. Clifford is still excavating the wreck, the Whydah was carrying artifacts from more than 50 other ships when it sank and the artifacts where scattered across the ocean floor. The exhibit also looks at the process that goes into excavating and preserving these artifacts.

Visitors follow in the wake of a recreated journey of the Whydah. As they enter the Real Pirates exhibit they are first greeted by a video narrated by actor Louis Gossett Jr., who provides historical information on piracy in the 18th century, as well as the story of Pirate Captain Sam Bellamy and the story of Barry Clifford’s discovery. The Whydah set out as a slave ship; the exhibit highlights the tremendous 12-month voyage through “The Middle Passage” and displays artifacts such as shackles, iron bars that were used to trade for captive humans, ivory, gold and even cowrie shells. There are also multiple passages from Olaudah Equiano’s story; Equiano was a former slave who published his first-hand experience of slavery in 1789.

Visitors are then introduced to the pirates, they first discover famed pirate Bart Roberts, or Black Bart as he was known. Black Bart was not only arguably the most successful pirate, he also dressed in the finer authentic fashion artifacts that are on display including a silver lapel pin, shoe buckles, buttons and copper cufflinks. Visitors also follow pirates as they review the ship’s “Articles”, which was the code of conduct that all pirates must abide by. Visitors also get a more detailed look into the life of Sam Bellamy and his capture of the Whydah in 1717. This section of the exhibit contains a highly detailed scale model of the Whydah and a computerized tour of the ship; visitors can see recovered cannons, sword pieces, pistols and grenades. There are hands-on activities where visitors can try their hand at tying a pirate knot or hoisting the Jolly Roger flag.

Visitors are invited to step aboard a life-size recreation of part of the Whydah. There they can explore Captain Sam Bellamy’s private quarters and see how he lived and what types of artifacts the ships captain possessed. They then venture down “below deck” to the crews quarters, there they can see the authentic artifacts like the tea kettle of the Whydah as well as replicas of the pirate crews dishes, utensils and tokens and dice used for gambling games. Visitors can learn about tasks of certain members on board the Whydah, before the sinking of the ship.

Premier Exhibitions Inc. organized the exhibit in a partnership with National Geographic. Along with the Real Pirates exhibit visitors can see important and rare books on the “Golden Age of Piracy”. The illustrated pirate journals date back to the late 16th and early 18th century and on at theNAT on loan from the Mandeville Special Collections of the UC San Diego Library. Also on loan from the private collection of Will and Carl Larson is a display of different types of pearls that pirates sought.

Admission prices for the San Diego Natural History Museum are $27 for adults, $24 for seniors ages 62+, $21 for students and military (with ID), $21 for teens ages 13-17, $18 for children ages 3-12 and free for children under two. For members of all ages the admission price is $15, to become a member sign up online. The tickets included timed-entrance to the exhibit as well as general access to other exhibits at theNAT and the giant screen theater films. Tickets can be purchased either online or at the museum. TheNAT is open from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. daily, and the last entry time into the Real Pirates exhibit is 60 minutes before closing. Real Pirates is currently on exhibit and will be at theNAT until Labor Day, Sept. 1, 2014.

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