The violent storms and rough seas of the South Atlantic battered the three-masted sailing ship as its crew set their mind to the task at hand — find and preserve specimens for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The ship was called Blossom, and its journey would mark the CMNH’s first expedition.
Nearly a century later, CMNH research librarian and archivist Wendy Wasman is creating an exhibit about the Blossom Expedition’s extensive research. The exhibit opens tomorrow.
The CMNH sent off the Blossom Expedition in 1923 with the goal of exploring islands in the South Atlantic and collecting specimens. There, the crew collected specimens of plants, birds, insects, fish and mammals (whose skins were saved to be stuffed when the crew arrived home). According to Wasman’s article on the CMNH website, the expedition returned with 13,000 specimens as well as “16,000 measurements, 500 color studies of birds, 1,000 photographs and about 30,000 feet of motion-picture film.”
“The way this was done at that time was to plan a long and involved expedition to visit many different geographical areas and collect a wide variety of specimens. Most of these specimens are still in our collections, and, of course, we have several on display in the exhibit,” Exhibit Project Coordinator Beth Kelly said.
The CMNH began in the 1830s as a two-room wooden building in Public Square, packed with animal specimens. In 1920, the museum was formally created, and it began gathering other specimens for its collection, such as plants, animals and rocks.
According to Wasman, the American Natural History Museum of New York organized expeditions in the Pacific Ocean, so the CMNH wanted to do an expedition, too, but in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Back then, you could get specimens through someone donating them, or send out an expedition, and that’s what we chose to do,” Wasman said. “It put our museum on the map.”
“They originally wanted to go all the way to Antarctica and collect elephant seals, but the ship kept breaking, and it kept needing repairs,” Wasman said. The ship never made it to Antarctica, and it landed in Charleston, South Carolina, 31 months after it had set sail.
The exhibit displays specimens found on the voyage, including three birds and a turtle shell, as well as navigational instruments used by the Blossom’s crew.
Wasman graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1981 and lives in Shaker Heights. She worked at the CMNH between 1988 and 1994 and returned in 2008.
Wasman became inspired for the exhibit when she saw a map in the CMNH archives that showed the path of the Blossom expedition.
“I saw an original map one day and it said, ‘The Base Map for plotting the Route of the Schooner Blossom.’ It showed this map and all the dotted lines for where the ship had gone with dates. I said, ‘This is so cool. I want to learn everything I can learn about the Blossom Expedition,’ ” Wasman said.
Wasman researched the expedition in the museum’s archives, where she found pictures and film taken on the expedition, log books of all the animals the crew saw, articles about the voyage from the Plain Dealer and the museum’s Museum Bulletin from the 1920s.
“I went into our archives, and I read all the letters and the fieldnotes and the journals, and looking at all the pictures, and I thought, ‘Everyone needs to know this story,’ ” Wasman said.
Wasman then wrote an article about the expedition for the CMNH’s Explore Member Magazine in 2013 and gave a lecture on the expedition as part of the museum’s Explorer Lecture series in 2016.
“Wendy Wasman has been our in-house content expert on the Blossom expedition. She gave a public lecture during the Museum’s Explorer Lecture Series a few years ago to a large, enthusiastic crowd, and we all realized how much support from the community there was for telling this story,” Director of Science and Head of Ornithology Andy Jones said.
“I did a public lecture about it — there were about 400 people here [at the museum] — but it was such a great story,” Wasman said. “And then our museum said, ‘Let’s do an exhibit about this.’ ”
Kelly wrote in an email that her favorite part of the exhibit are the photographs taken by the crew members on the Blossom. “There’s one image in particular of the captain standing with plate in hand and glass to his lips – obviously a quick, on-the-go meal – that seems so timeless and relatable. These photos illustrate that these people had real personalities, habits and challenges, just like any of us living now, and they are so much more than ‘dusty historical figures’ who lived long ago,” she wrote.
Kelly also likes the model of the Blossom that children play in. “My exhibits coworker, Tracy Luoma, built this small ship’s bow from images of the Blossom, so it’s child-sized but also very accurate,” she wrote in an email.
“This exhibit is an opportunity to tell a unique story that shows how our museum first established itself as an international research institution. Since our founding in 1920, we’ve played a major role in collection and studying natural history objects,” Jones wrote in an email.
The exhibit opens to the public on March 24.