Monday, August 1, 2011

Moby-Dick Aboard the "Morgan"

August 1

Speaking of the "Charles W. Morgan," it was time again for the annual Moby Dick Marathon at Mystic Seaport, which took place from noon yesterday to noon today—today being Herman Melville's birthday. This was a special year for the event, for not only is 2011 the 170th anniversary of the launching of the "Morgan" and the 70th of its arrival in Mystic: It is also the 160th anniversary of the publication of Moby Dick—which a reviewer of the new film version for today's Daily News rather perversely described as "Sometimes called the greatest of all American novels (though we Fitzgerald fans, among others, would argue that point)." Well, I'm sure that Twain and Hawthorne fans, too, "would argue that point." For that matter, so would Danielle Steele fans, but that doesn't make them right. But I digress.

A distinguishing and welcome feature of the event this year was the new embrace of social media. Not only was there a live video feed. In an addition, and in particular, Mystic made use of Twitter:
"Twitter is an innovative way for us to share this special event with a global audience," said Museum president Stephen C. White. "Nowhere else does 'Moby-Dick' come alive the way it does on the decks of the Morgan, the sole surviving ship of the fleet that inspired Melville."
I've followed Mystic Seaport on Twitter for quite  some time. For this occasion, however, staff not only live-tweeted the readings, but also tweeted on three related themes: Melville's novel in popular culture, images from Mystic Seaport collections, and scientific information related to the novel. They created a special hashtag for the event (#MDM2011), as will as separate accounts for each of the three supplementary themes:
This is all to the good.

There is a lot of debate (and consternation) concerning the use and abuse of social media in the museum, preservation, and scholarly worlds, and I'll have more to say about that in the near future. I recently returned from a conference on the history of the book in art and science, at which participants not only tweeted, but were officially encouraged to tweet. As I have noted, some participants were put off by the typing at the panels (though this really should be no different than taking notes on a laptop, which is already common practice). Others, made of heartier stuff, nonetheless questioned the validity of the endeavor. Like any other social-networking technology, Twitter is only as good as the purpose to which it is put.
Most participants judged it a great benefit and success: it allowed us to expand the conversation at the conference, it allowed those unable to attend in person to take part vicariously, and it provided a record of both the events and the evolving reactions to themes.

I'd like to think that Melville would have understood. The narrator in Typee recounts how the news of an incoming boat was circulated on his tropical island by shouts from person to person:
This was the vocal telegraph of the islanders; by means of which condensed items of information could be carried in a very few minutes from the sea to their remotest habitation. . . . one piece of information following another with inconceivable rapidity.

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