By Ellen Coombs
All hands on deck!
Earlier this year, UCL’s Grant Museum sent out a call to the public, asking them to help rebuild a 157-year-old whale. For almost 70 years, the whale’s headless skeleton had sat in several boxes, dotted around the museum like a giant, unfinished puzzle. His skull, the only part of him on public display.
A plan with a porpoise
The Grant Museum’s whale, a Northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) male to be precise, met an untimely and rather grizzly end in 1860. Northern bottlenose whales are fascinating creatures, that are some of the deepest diving animals on the planet. They are curious by nature, a trait that may have sealed this whales’ fate as he got too near to his hunters. Killed by fisherman, displayed as a carcass, and later as a skeleton, in 1948 his dismantled skeleton was given to the Grant Museum, where it has remained, largely hidden, ever since. The museum staff were keen to unearth their whale skeleton, give the bones a good clean, and reunite his body with his head for the first time in a long time. Mostly, they were curious to see just how much of the skeleton was actually remaining….
And thus, the Whale weekender event was born. The event ran over the weekend of July 8th and 9th 2017 and pulled in around 800 keen, curious and inquisitive members of the public. Many had come to take up a unusual opportunity to get their hands on precious, rarely-seen museum specimens, others wanted to get up close and personal with an 8 metre-long whale, and most just fancied having a whale of a time.
A bone to pick…
On the morning of Saturday 8th July, Team Whale* assembled.
Even before the clock hit midday (our official opening time), curious members of the public began to file in. People whispered excitedly as they saw the whale’s massive vertebrae and ribs scattered over the tables. More excitement followed as the conservation staff instructed visitors to don fetching latex lab gloves, picked up bones and began gesturing to members of the public to take the massive osteological jigsaw pieces. ‘You mean, I can hold it?’ one gasped, ‘What if I drop it?!’ said another. Soon there was a steady stream of visitors carefully carrying bones from the sorting table over to the cleaning tables.
Over the next few hours bones were carefully identified and pieced back together before being taken over to the cleaning table, where years and years’ worth of dust was carefully wiped, rubbed, and suctioned away by patient volunteers who grew ever curious (and determined) as the years of grime slipped away. Buzzing excitement soon gave way to hushed, industrious activity, as people concentrated on the job in hand.
As the afternoon moved on, the cleaned bones were placed on the long central table, where they were carefully catalogued and labelled. The whale began to take shape, his long smooth backbone undulating along the length of the table, his sweeping, cleaned ribs protruding out from his sides.
The task was finally completed after another day of cleaning on the Sunday. The second day was even busier than the last, as more visitors joined (and many returned from the previous day) to help rebuild the whale.
As we pieced together what we had, and ascertained which bones were missing, we discovered an odd addition to the collection…A massive, rouge spare rib was hitchhiking along in one of the boxes. It’s likely that the bone belonged to a much bigger baleen whale, and it remains a mystery as to how it got there, or where the rest of that whale is!
A job whale done
By 4pm on the Sunday, the Grant Museum’s Northern bottlenose whale was clean, complete**, and laid out in all his glory for likely the first time since his flesh was boiled from his bones in the 1860s.
It certainly was a job well done by hundreds of volunteers, and the staff at the Grant Museum. What better way to pay homage to such a fascinating animal, than by carefully cleaning his bones and putting his magnificent body back together with the help and enthusiasm of fantastic volunteers?
What a tail!