The Object at Hand | Science | Smithsonian
Current Issue
September 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

The Object at Hand

It took four years, a shipwright and help from the British to create the blue whale model installed in the National Museum of Natural History. After 33 years, it still attracts millions annually

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

For the past three decades 8,000 pounds of fiberglass has been "sounding" from the ceiling in the Life in the Sea Hall of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). It is the most stupendous proxy animal the museum has ever created. But at 92 feet in length and 34 feet in height, it no more than does justice to the dimensions of the huge creature it represents-the blue whale.

The blue is the largest animal that has ever lived. In real life some blues reach 100 feet, which makes them longer than an apatosaurus. Weighing in at some 150 tons, one blue whale is heavier than 25 full-grown African bush elephants. In death the creatures once provided meat for dogs and humans; oil for lighting, margarine and face cream; glycerin for munitions.

Even so, the great size and speed of blues (at up to 25 knots-or 29 miles per hour-they went faster than whaling ships could follow), plus the fact that they sank swiftly when killed at sea, protected them somewhat during the first four centuries of the whaling industry. Then, in the late 1860s, Svend Foyn perfected a highly effective harpoon cannon that featured an exploding head. Worldwide whale protection did not set in until almost a century later, and the years in between brought these giant mammals to near ruin. During the 1930-31 season, for instance, 29,410 blue whales were killed in the Antarctic. An estimated 350,000 blues have been killed in the 20th century.

The whales' great scarcity and sheer size have always posed considerable problems for museums wanting to display full-size specimens. As A. E. Parr of the American Museum of Natural History rather delicately pointed out in 1963, "Since whales do not perch, the problem of presenting them in their living form was a good deal more complicated than bird taxidermy."

That is why the huge creature that now awes visitors in the Sea Hall of the National Museum of Natural History-the second blue whale to be displayed there in this century-is not a stuffed whale. Or even a model made from measurements taken direct from a dead whale by NMNH scientists. The Smithsonian's first life-size museum whale, however, which the current whale replaced, was done from a dead whale. And a terrible fuss it turned out to be. To get it, Frederick True, then Smithsonian's curator of mammals, had to dispatch a small team of taxidermists and paleontologists and numerous barrels of plaster of paris to a whaling station at Balaena, Newfoundland. That was in the spring of 1903.

They waited for weeks. When at last a dead whale, 78 feet long, was secured, it took weeks more of "greasy, laborious and puzzlin" work to make plaster molds of the whale and then cut away the flesh. The skeleton was saved for shipment to Washington. The skull alone weighed three tons. To make plaster casts, they had to manhandle flukes 17 feet across. Flippers tipped the scales at 800 pounds apiece. The whole mess, some 26,550 pounds of bone and mold, was shipped to Washington.

When it went on display in 1904, flanked by a life-size model of a tyrannosaurus that, by comparison, looked about the size of a black Lab retriever loping alongside, it was a wonder.

By the 1950s, though, a growing trend in museum chic called for the display of animals looking as active as possible in a facsimile of their natural habitat. Despite its anatomical correctness, critics said, the 1904 model, with its flippers outstretched like stubby wings, did look a bit like a sausage coasting along in a low flight pattern. A new, improved action whale was needed.

The new Smithsonian whale was to be modeled on the wooden-ribbed, plaster of paris whale then hanging in the British Museum. The British helpfully shipped to America 34 small templates made from their model. These were enlarged at NMNH to form a skeletal wooden whale around which the final model was molded. The Smithsonian's whale outgrew the British version by at least a foot-briefly becoming what a local journalist described as the "big-gest whale in captivity."

Even without having to wrestle with a flesh-and-blood whale cadaver, the construction and mounting of the new Smithsonian whale was an extraordinary challenge-as well as a dangerous chore. Overseeing the work was the late A. Remington Kellogg, a brilliant, irascible vertebrate paleontologist and a stickler for detail. Smithsonian whale modeler Michael Friello remembers that the blowhole and other parts of the blue whale model had to be recast again and again. Kellogg often explained that he was hoping to retire as soon as the job was properly done. Admonishing the crew to hurry up, he would swear and say, "You'll keep me working forever."

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus