RALEIGH, N.C. – You won't find Captain Jack Sparrow, but Blackbeard has a starring role in a new pirate exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History.
The almost yearlong exhibit "Knights of the Black Flag" traces the sweet trade from ancient Egypt and Greece to today's pirates who prowl the waters off Somalia.
"People have an image of pirates, but what is the reality?" asked museum curator Jeanne Marie Warzeski.
To that end, the exhibit opens with paintings of pirates to show "the image that we have in our culture of pirates," Warzeski said Thursday.
Those paintings includes works by Frank Schoonover and Edward Arthur Wilson, along with contemporary art by Don Maitz, whose works are used to advertise Captain Morgan Rum.
It moves then to the pirates of the Red Sea; the golden age of piracy; and the largest collection of artifacts ever exhibited from the shipwreck believed to be Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge. The exhibit also includes a skull from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., that's purported to be Blackbeard's, although curators at neither museum stand by that claim.
The show ends with an interactive exhibit where visitors can open small chests to sniff the smells of the ships - gunpowder and rum included - and test their aim by shooting toy cannons at computerized ships on a screen.
The exhibit opened Friday and runs through Jan. 3, 2010.
Much of the show focuses on Blackbeard, who terrorized his victims along the North Carolina coast until 1718, when his ship ran aground. The wreckage of what's believed to be his ship was found in 1996 at Beaufort Inlet.
Blackbeard wasn't the most successful of pirates, but he is the most famous, said Mike Carraway, exhibit designer at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, where the exhibit originated.
"For some reason, he had really good PR agents," Carraway said, noting Blackbeard's penchant for lighting matches in his beard to terrify the enemy, which "made him look like the devil himself. "He was very much a theatrical guy and knew how to play an audience, apparently, as well as being basically bloodthirsty and cutthroat."
Explorers such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh operated under the more genteel name of privateer, but basically were pirates who worked with the winking support of Queen Elizabeth I, he said.
Piracy was a "dirty, nasty business" but not much different in that respect from life on land, where "if you worked as a laborer all your life, you got nothing," he said. Pirates, at least, had the chance to make money.
Some myths remain, including that whole bit about walking the plank, which was a rare event, he said. It was easier to simply toss a man overboard or run a sword through him.
Pirates were more likely to leave crews at sea on disabled boats than to kill them outright. If you put up a particularly good fight, you might be offered the chance to join the pirates, Carraway said.
History has romanticized pirates, despite the murder and mayhem they created, because they were non-conforming, rugged individualists who sold stolen goods at prices far below those sold with large tariffs, Carraway said.
The exhibit starts in the Red Sea and ends there with Somalia's pirates, sometimes romanticized by Somalian youngsters who look up to a brother or uncle pirate, Carraway said, because he always has cash from raiding ships.