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Field Museum Walks The Plank* With Real Pirates

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 25, 2009 6:40PM

In 1984, underwater explorer Barry Clifford made one whale of a discovery off the coast of Cape Cod: the remains of the Whydah, the first fully-authenticated pirate ship discovered in American waters. Now, 25 years later, Clifford, along with National Geographic and AEG Live, is bringing his discovery to the Field Museum in their newest exhibition, Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.

The exhibit doesn't just examine the pirate aspect, but rather takes a look at the history of the Whydah, tracing it from its roots as a European slave ship. The exhibit explores the wider spectrum of the economic structure of the 18th century and the slave trade. The exhibit properly places the story of the Whydah in a historical context without bogging down visitors in too much back-story while also (hopefully) inspiring said visitors into exploring the topic further on their own. From their, the story of the Whydah is followed chronologically from its origins, to its capture by captain Sam Bellamy, to its end off the shore of Cape Cod and the eventual trial and execution of the surviving members. The exhibit concludes with a look at how Clifford and his crew managed to carefully examine the wreckage for its exact contents, looking at the pains Clifford took to preserve the find.

While some of the "re-enactment" scenes using mannequin pirates feels a little too Disney-ish, it's a small quibble as the exhibit contains a wealth of information and is still at the high level of quality one comes to expect from the Field Museum. The highlights include some of the actual findings from the Whydah, such as coins and weapons, and even remains of John King, a child on the crew who was on board when the ship sank in a legendary nor'easter. Exploring life on board the slave ship, on board the pirate ship, and a glance at this slice of history, the exhibit is one that appeals to pirate fans of all ages.

The Real Pirates exhibit runs at the Field Museum through October 25, 2009, $23 for adults, $20 for seniors and students with ID, and $13 for children ages 3 to 11.

*-Actually, according to a fact sheet distributed by the Field Museum PR crew: "Very little evidence exists to support the notion that pirates made victims 'walk the plank' as common punishment. The few depictions that show this practice are from the 1820s and beyond, but no evidence of plank-walking exists from the Age of Piracy (18th century). The idea of walking the plank was introduced to society in 1887 in a Harper's Weekly article on buccaneers and again propelled into pop culture with J.M. Barrie's stage production of Peter Pan in the early 20th century."