Up in the air: the beginnings of a whale-sized conservation project | Conservators

The stunning 25 metre long skeleton of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) currently suspended in the Museum’s Mammals and blue whale gallery since 1934 is to be taken down in January 2016. After an extensive period of cleaning and conservation it will then be re-suspended from the ceiling of the Hintze Hall in the summer of 2017.

Photo of the blue whale skeleton from head-on and below.
Head-on view the blue whale skeleton prior to scaffolding being put in place.
Photo showing the scaffolding from the rear, left side view
The scaffolding in place around the blue whale skeleton, with the model of the blue whale below.

Following months of careful consideration the blue whale skeleton has been chosen to take centre stage at the Museum, to give an immediate introduction that illustrates our research into the rich biodiversity of life on Earth and a sustainable future, as well as the origins and evolution of that life.

Moving a blue whale around is quite literally an enormous project which involves many specialists including curators, project managers, scaffolders, structural engineers, specimen handlers, and mount makers, to name but a few. Central to this project are the conservators who will be ensuring the skeleton is given the due care and attention it needs.

So exactly how do you work on a large specimen suspended over 6 metres above the ground with many other specimens and models surrounding it? That’s the story we aim to tell in our upcoming posts in our new Conservators blog.

Back in 1934 when the whale skeletons were first installed in the Mammals and blue whale gallery there was a certain, shall we say, casualness in approach. Scaffolding was minimalist and staff even stood directly upon the skeletons during the installation, which is something we would strongly discourage doing nowadays.

Archival photo of the bowhead whale being installed showing a member of staff standing on the jawbone while working
Members of staff installing one of the whale skeletons in 1934. Times have changed and the somewhat casual treatment of the skeletons during installation – with members of staff standing directly on the bones – wouldn’t happen today.

In fact one of the first things we had to consider when planning the work was how we could get full access to the specimen. We need to get very close to perform our work, so any scaffolding had to meet our exacting requirements as well as being safe to move around upon.

Photo of Team Whale sitting on the scaffolding in front of the skeleton
The blue whale skeleton team of conservators

Now that the scaffolding is in place, over the course of the next few weeks we will be up there documenting, cleaning and evaluating the skeleton. This is a vital first step: although we already have plans and methods on how we are going to take the specimen down there is still much more to learn from the specimen itself. 

Under the layers of dust (an inevitable consequence of a building designed in the 19th Century, several million visitors per year and the very difficult to reach and clean hangings like this) there will be more to discover to help us refine our planned deinstallation procedure.

Although seeming to appear caught in a giant cage of scaffolding, the specimen is actually still capable of movement because it remains suspended on the 5 sets of cable that have been holding it in place since 1934, so we need keep that in mind while we move around. The areas where the cable are inserted into the specimen are especially fragile so we already know some of the challenges ahead.

Photo showing a layer of dust and the attachment point on the skull of the skeleton
Several million visitors a year to a building designed in the 19th Century creates an awfully large amount of dust. This close up view of the skeleton demonstrates the importance of the scaffolding for assessing its condition prior to cleaning and deinstallation

As a conservator you learn to build up a relationship with any object you work on. For me this has already started. Each time I climb the ladders, up-past the surrounding specimens and models, to reach the skeleton, I pass by the watchful eye of the famous blue whale model which lies directly beneath.

Photo of the blue whale model's eye through the scaffolding
An ever watchful eye on my way up the ladder…

3 Replies to “Up in the air: the beginnings of a whale-sized conservation project | Conservators”

  1. Amazing to see the picture from 1934 with the staff member standing on the bone…

    Don’t falter under the gaze of the whale!

  2. We always feel like an ant when we work on our whales or the dioramas. All humour aside, it affects your perspective and project planning.

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