The Blossom And Cleveland Museum Sail Into History

Fish specimens include Doctorfish or Barbero (top left) and Rock Hind (top right).

The events leading  to "Sailing Through Science: the Voyage of the Blossom" at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, began with a map. Museum Librarian and Archivist Wendy Wasman was hunting more cabinet space when she found a 1923-era map--“Base Map for Plotting Route of the Schooner Blossom South Atlantic and Indian Ocean Expedition”. Intrigued, Wasman searched deeper into museum archives and found such good material that the museum elected to mount its own exhibit. She also found the voyage was a tactic for the then-new museum to stock its collections. “The expedition was incredibly well-documented for its time, “ Wasman says in a exhibit, including the base map, now on display in the museum’s Fawick Gallery. The map shows the expedition crossing the Atlantic four times, totaling 22,000 miles, touching land in Africa and South America, plus numerous islands. The effort collected 13,000 specimens of fish, birds, lizards, etc. Plans calling for side trips to the Indian Ocean and Antarctica were cancelled by necessity, as the trip stretched out well past its original two-year plan.  

The Blossom’s journey comes to life through numerous maps, collection displays, a small model of the Blossom, complete with wheel and spyglass, that kids play on, plus dynamic photos, from 95 years ago. The original Blossom was a 106 feet, three-masted wooden sailing schooner. Though steam power would have allowed a quicker, safer trip, the planners went old school. The expedition was funded by Elizabeth Bingham Blossom for $125,000, about $1.8 million today. Exhibit materials refer to a giant wave during a gale, two weeks out of the New London, CT departure on October 29, 1923, which nearly capsized the undersized ship, flooded the hold, soaked clothes and bedding and spoiled much of the water and food supplies. Expedition leader George Finlay Simmons, a Texas ornithologist was also bed-ridden with sea sickness during this period.

The romance of the high seas shines through the artifacts and media materials, as do the challenges of being at sea for prolonged periods of time. In one photo,  Simmons eats on deck, while standing. He’s heavily tanned and flat bellied, telling possibly of long days, short rations and abundant chores. Another shows a four-man Blossom crew with a whale boat, having run aground on an island’s reef. Shoes and clothing were lost and the whale boat was abandoned. Of the sixteen men who left Connecticut onboard the Blossom, only four finished the entire 31-month journey, even though none died. Sickness and personal situations caused turnover amongst the scientists and crew. 

A mounted fish display reminds of the collections nature of the Blossom’s trip, with 10 fish specimens unfamiliar to most Clevelanders: Blue Parrotfish, Hogfish, Old Wife, Coney, Nassau Grouper, and others. Additional specimens include a Southern Giant Petrel and a huge turtle shell. The captain’s desk display fires imagination with a map of South Trinidad, drawn based on surveys and photographs by Simmons and Biologist Kenneth Cuyler. A captain’s log, complete with detailed observations on latitude, longitude, thermometer readings on water and air temperatures, courses and weather, gives meaning to the day-to-day experience of these sailors and scientists.

Other artifacts of interest: a ship’s clock, a sextant, a mariner's compass, an artificial horizon finder and a chronometer, a collectors field book. The Blossom’s ship’s bell was donated by Simmons’ family. After the Blossom’s return, the collections allowed the museum to become an established institution and grow to show its guests the current exhibit. “This is our legacy,” Wasman said of the expedition and the specimen’s collected.

For more information on the museum, including additional exhibits, go to 

Harry Peck

Retired corporate sales & marketing guy in the tourism businesses. Long time free-lance sports writer.

Volume 10, Issue 6, Posted 12:36 PM, 06.02.2018