New Bedford, Mass. — ''Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford,'' wrote Herman Melville in ''Moby Dick.'' And all these splendors, the author added, ''were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.''
The New Bedford of Melville's day was the whaling capital of the world. In the 1850s, the harbor bristled with the masts of a whaling fleet of over 300 vessels - full-rigged ships, brigs, barks, and schooners that set out for the ''grounds'' off Africa, in the Pacific, and even in the ice-clogged Arctic. It was grueling work, but thousands earned their living at it, and a few made fortunes from it. Whaling, both its romance and its tragedy, became part of our national heritage.
The artifacts of that heritage, the implements and handiwork that give it tangibility, are preserved in New Bedford's Whaling Museum: ship logs and other documents, remarkable examples of scrimshaw (etching on whale's teeth), harpoons and lances, and even a half-scale model of a whaling ship, the Lagoda.
Museum director Richard Kugler has the sharp-eyed visage of a seagoing man himself - and, indeed, some of his forebears were in the whaling business in the town of Westport near here. He points out that when the museum was launched in 1915, New Bedford was still home to a dozen active whaling ships. Oil from the ground, however, had replaced oil from whale's blubber as the fuel and lubrication of a new industrial age.
But in their day whale oil and baleen made New Bedford a wealthy city. And here, as elsewhere, large bank accounts bred a taste for culture. ''Wealth threw up here a crop of 19th-century painters with few counterparts in this country,'' Mr. Kugler says. Canvases like William Bradford's ''Sealers Crushed by Icebergs'' capture the rigors of whaling. Clifford Ashley's vibrant seascapes, luminous with pinks and blues, seem to leap from the museum's white-painted brick walls.
From these walls to the wood beams overhead, the architecture often competes for attention with the exhibits themselves.As Kugler explains, the place is actually six buildings spliced together over the years - and the splicing works well.Only the lower floor, where many of the ship models are displayed, suffers from lack of light and a drab, institutional atmosphere. That will soon be improved, says the director, as a major sprucing-up project gets under way. A big part of that project (to be finished by next April) will be the redesign of the huge room where the Lagoda is berthed. When finished, that room will include half-scale paintings of whales by artist Richard Ellis.
Those paintings will be part of a new emphasis on biology and conservation. Kugler readily acknowledges that the 19th-century American whaling industry made ''serious inroads'' into some species - for example, the Arctic bowhead whales.
Research generated by curator John Bockstoce's yearly journeys to the western Arctic fishery could, in fact, play a significant role in protecting the remaining bowhead population. His study of old whaling-ship logs indicates a greatly reduced stock today - something ''the US government and the Eskimos (who still hunt the bowhead) didn't want to hear,'' Mr. Bockstoce says.
An exhibit that shouldn't be missed is the panorama of a whaling voyage to the Pacific. It fills a large room, but it's only a small section of what was originally a painting a quarter of a mile long.
Kugler explains that such monumental paintings served as 19th-century travelogues. They were unscrolled on a theater stage to music and narrative. Even the museum's short ''clip'' gives a feel for a voyage, from the dirty work of capturing the whales and removing their blubber to an idyllic visit to a Tahitian village.
For many people today, whaling has a justifiably dark image. But its history holds a valuable story about ingenuity, ruggedness - and greed. For the visitor who's willing not only to gape at displays but to imagine the drama behind them, the New Beford Whaling Museum tells that story well.
To reach the museum from the Boston area, take Route 128 to Route 24 south; then take Route 140 to New Bedford. Hours are 9 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 on Sundays. Admission is $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for children aged 6 to 14. K. H.