What are ship models? Are they sculptures? Shipbuilding tools? Why are some little more than wooden hulls while others look ready to set sail on a miniature ocean?

June 24, 2021

A ship modeler with his Quoddy boat models, c. 1920s. Photograph by F.G. Milliken. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives, Gloucester, MA. Gift of Gardner Lamson, 1995 [Acc. #1995.54]

Dear Friends,

Summer is here, and with vessels abounding in Gloucester Harbor and around Cape Ann, we invite you to join us in exploring the history of ships models in this issue of CAM Connects. 

Prompted by recent updates to both of CAM’s Fisheries & Maritime Galleries, may this issue of CAM Connects inspire you to join us in the galleries in the weeks ahead and explore the wonderful representation of ships models featured throughout the Museum. As captured in the images and the stories below, during the course of the Museum’s current collections move many models have come to light and afford the prospect for deeper exploration.   

This issue of CAM Connects additionally provides an opportunity to highlight the exemplary work of the Museum’s Maritime Curator Erik Ronnberg, Jr., featured here both for his contributions to the field of ships model making and for his fisheries and maritime scholarship. A variety of conversations with Erik about his life, work and inspirations have been captured and are also accessible below.

With the Museum’s recent return to regular opening hours, this is a great time to visit the Janet & William Ellery James Center at CAM Green and experience our first exhibition for the summer, Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, Brad Story, and the Great Marsh. We look forward to seeing you there and do hope that you can also join us on July 8th for a conversation with Brad Story and Harold Burnham connecting model making, sculpture, and ship building.  

Oliver Barker, Director

Model Making

Ship Models: Origins & Uses

What are ship models? Are they sculptures? Shipbuilding tools? Why are some little more than wooden hulls while others look ready to set sail on a miniature ocean? The truth is that every model is unique and was created with a specific purpose in mind. On Cape Ann, those purposes run a wide gamut. While we don’t know whether the various Indigenous peoples who fished Cape Ann’s shores made models of their own, we do know that the European settlers who supplanted them brought with them a rich tradition of model making. Some were purely decorative, others rigidly utilitarian.

Top: Shipbuilder’s Half-Model of a Seine Boat, c. 1900, wood. Gift of Robert M. C. Smith, 2020 [Acc. #2020.26]. Left: Angelo Lualdi (1881-1979), Our Lady of Good Voyage, 1915, polychromed wood, metal. Gift of the Parish of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, 1984 [Acc. #2410]. Right: Peter Henrick Ness (1890-1976), Model of Clipper Ship "Young America," 1929, mahogany, teak, copper, cordage. Gift of Mrs. T. Jefferson Coolidge, 1957 [Acc. #1761.1]. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, MA.

Some models, like the one seen in the lower left image above, held by Our Lady of Good Voyage, are meant to represent an idea rather than a specific vessel. These kinds of models can be generalized and non-descript. For another kind of model, the “builder’s half-model,” seen at the image above it, the opposite is true. Because this kind of model is used by shipbuilders during the construction of a full-sized vessel, the shape and proportion of the model must be very specific.

During the 18th century “admiralty models” were made as concept designs for new warships. These were often fitted out in exquisite detail with functional rigging and planked hulls. In the 19th century, civilian model makers extended the scope of this field to privately owned vessels, and soon model making firms began appearing, each specializing in models for shipping offices, travel agencies, and passenger lines. Model makers made models of existing vessels too, often for the vessels' owners to display proudly in their homes or offices. Additionally, model makers looked to vessels of the past as well, leaning on any surviving measurements, plans and photographs to bring these ships back to life.

By the 20th century, ship model making became a popular hobby, sparked by the introduction of construction kits with pre-carved hulls and cast metal fittings. Many amateur model makers got their start with kits, then moved on to making everything by hand. Today in the digital age, model making from “scratch” is a rare artform due to the availability of computer aided design software and the advent of 3D printing.

John C. Ehler

Models on the Move. Maritime Curator, Erik Ronnberg (left) and Curatorial Assistant, Leon Doucette (right), help a batch of models in CAM’s Collection set sail into the Janet & William Ellery James Center at the Cape Ann Museum Green.

Cape Ann, like many coastal communities, has strong connections to the art of ship model making and as a result, the Cape Ann Museum is fortunate to have an extensive collection of models made by an array of professional and amateur model makers. This diorama (below) showing 15 types of vessels was made by fisherman-craftsman John C. Ehler (1866-1942) and displayed in Gloucester’s 300th anniversary celebration in 1923. It shows the evolution of the fishing schooner from the 1620s through 1923.

John C. Ehler (1866-1942), Diorama, c. 1923, wood, line, gesso and paint. Deposited at the Museum in the 1920s; accessioned into the collection in 2018 [Acc. #2018.17].

John Ehler was born in Nova Scotia and came to this country to fish in 1888. He married Elizabeth Hadley (who was also from Nova Scotia) in 1896 and settled in East Gloucester. Like many men, after fishing for a few years Ehler gave up the sea and found work ashore as a carpenter. By the 1930s, he had a shop on East Main Street where he made and sold his models. The Cape Ann Museum owns numerous examples of John Ehler’s models, each with distinctive wooden sails like the ones in this diorama. While he may not have always captured a vessel’s hull form and rigging in precise detail, all of Ehler’s works, including this one, have a wonderful charm and authenticity that captivates visitors.

Gloucester Harbor Diorama

Model makers who contributed to diorama: David W. Low (1883-1919); Lawrence Jensen (active 1880s to early 1900s); Erik. A.R. Ronnberg, Jr. (b. 1944), 1892 Gloucester Harbor Diorama (detail of marine railway). Collection of the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, MA.

Ship models can serve as a blueprint for building life-size vessels, they can record history, and they can spark the imagination of life on the high seas. Models can also set the stage for understanding an entire industry, like the marine railways illustrated within the Museum’s Gloucester Harbor Diorama. 

The central feature of the Gloucester Harbor Diorama, created by the people of Gloucester for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the World’s Fair), was a scale model of a section of the Gloucester waterfront. Taken together, the models in this diorama are an authentic representation of Gloucester's harbor and fleet as they existed more than a century ago when Gloucester was a worldwide leader in the fishing industry.

A marine railway is a service facility for hauling ships out of the water to repair and clean the hulls. They are not used for shipbuilding, although some of the work done on them may call for the services of skilled ship carpenters. The diorama displays the various parts of a marine railway including hauling ways, the cradle, a caulkers' and shipwrights' shed, finger piers, and a mast crane.

Learn more about the marine railways and Gloucester Harbor Diorama here or visit Fitz Henry Lane Online for further details, charts, and resources.

Erik Ronnberg, Jr.

Cape Ann Museum’s own Maritime Curator, Erik Ronnberg, Jr. is one of the most highly regarded model makers in the country and many of his works are on display in the Museum. Ronnberg, who for many years worked as a ship model maker on Cape Ann, is the son of a Swedish-born Master Mariner who arrived in America in 1939. Erik grew up in a household where he and his father would make ship models together.

Video still from VL31 – The Launch of the “Elsie”: A Ship Model by Erik Ronnberg, Jr.
Speakers: Wilber James, Erik Ronnberg, Jr. | Date: 4/9/2011. Click here for lecture transcript.

This video records the unveiling of a ship model constructed by Erik that was commissioned by Wilber James, a Rockport native and the great-grandson of an owner of the real Elsie, Charles Frederick Pearce. Along with a slide show that highlights the model’s incredible detail, Erik speaks about the process of building such an exact replica, down to the four-strand left-hand turned anchor cable and lucky horseshoe attached to the windlass.

After watching the video, come to the Museum and see the actual model on display in CAM’s Maritime Gallery.

Erik A. R. Ronnberg Sr. and Jr. at the dining room table, c. 1950. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives.

For further insight into Erik’s connection with maritime history and model making, listen to these recordings of Erik and his father assessing tools in 1985 and discussing rigging lofts in 1986.

Lastly, Erik recently sat down with lifelong friend and CAM Board Member Wilber James for a conversation discussing how Ronnberg began making models, his father’s influence on his professional pursuits, some of his favorite works, and what’s next for the Cape Ann Museum’s Fisheries & Maritime Galleries. 

Connecting the Dots Between Shipbuilding and Sculpture

Left: The Adventure II at Burnham Railways, c. 1940s. Photograph by Henry Kenniston. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives, Gloucester, MA. Right: Brad Story, Anhinga, 2011, wood, epoxy, fiberglass, acrylic paint. Collection of Mollie and John Byrnes.

From Boats to Birds, a Sculptor’s Journey

On Thursday, July 8, join CAM for a conversation between Harold Burnham, a master boat designer, shipwright and sailmaker, and Essex sculptor Brad Story. After graduating from college in 1969, Story returned home to work with his father, Dana Story, in the family shipyard which has been in operation in Essex since the 1660s. After 27 years working in the yard, Story turned to designing and building three-dimensional works of art that combine his fascination with airplanes, birds and boat building. The Burnham name has also long been a part of Essex’s shipbuilding heritage. As the 28th Burnham to operate a shipyard in Essex since 1819, Harold Burnham is continuing that legacy. In this conversation, Story and Burnham will explore the relationship between ships, models, and sculpture and how they’re all tied to Cape Ann.

For more information and to register, click here.

View a selection of Story's sculptures at the exhibition Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, Brad Story, and the Great Marsh, currently on view at the CAM Green through July 30.

Video still from VL55 – The 28th Burnham to Operate a Ship in Essex Since 1819
Speaker: Harold Burnham| Date: 9/21/2013

For more about shipbuilding in Essex, watch this 2013 video in which Harold Burnham speaks about his activities as a master shipwright. Working out of the historic Burnham Boat Building shipyard in Essex Harbor and relying on such local authorities as Erik Ronnberg, Jr., for design guidance, Burnham has constructed six wooden vessels to date from locally sourced materials and manufactures most of the parts himself. His presentation includes a brief video that records the launch of the pinky schooner Ardelle in 2011, a boat that he not only built but also currently captains out of Gloucester for public and private sails.