X Close

UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Help us build and clean a whale skeleton

By Jack Ashby, on 3 July 2017

Some of the whale's backbone, in one of our stores.

Some of the whale’s backbone, in one of our stores.

This weekend we will be attempting to rebuild our largest specimen – a northern bottle-nosed whale skeleton. And we would like you to help us do it.

The specimen’s story begins in 1860 when it was originally collected in Somerset, when an expedition set off across the Bristol Channel in pursuit of “two great fish” (as they were described by the local newspaper – whales are, of course, mammals) – one of which was brought back to land. After a period “on tour” as a whole carcass, the prepared skeleton was displayed hanging from the ceiling of the Weston Super-Mare Museum. It eventually came to the Grant Museum in 1948, but it had been dismantled into its separate bones. (Its full, remarkable story, including the use of entirely inappropriate whale-murdering equipment, misguided entrepreneurship, rancid carcasses, financial ruin, and the unusual tasks the wife of a 19th century curator might find herself doing, can be read in a previous post).

At over eight metres long in life, different parts of the skeleton have been stored in different cupboards and cabinets across the Museum and its storerooms. Today the skull is the only part of the skeleton on public display. The Whale Weekender will allow us to bring all the parts of the skeleton together for the first time in decades.

The last time the whale was publicly exhibited was in Woodspring Museum, Weston Super-Mare, prior to 1948.

The last time the whale was publicly exhibited was in Woodspring Museum, Weston Super-Mare, prior to 1948.

Even bigger than the whale is the opportunity FOR YOU to do something few people will ever get to do. We are asking members of the public to join our Conservation Team* to help lay the skeleton out, work out how much of the skeleton survives and give it a good clean to help preserve the bones for future.

The event will also allow us to work with the public to help protect this incredible specimen for the long-term by cleaning 157 years’ worth of dust. It has such a brilliant history to it. But most of all, we want to know whether we have a complete skeleton. It’s so big that we’ve never been able to lay it all out before.

Can you guess what whale bits are in this box?

Can you guess what whale bits are in this box?

The northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) is one of the deepest diving mammals on the planet, hunting for fish and squid near the sea floor. They are rarely seen in UK waters – mainly off the coasts of Scotland and Northern Ireland – however one rose to notoriety in 2006 when a young female whale got lost and ended up in the River Thames, capturing the public imagination.

Over the Whale Weekender visitors will meet whale-ologist Ellen Coombs, as well as the museum conservators, and get a chance to contribute to the conservation of the specimen.

Running alongside this will be a special family art installation where families can create an ocean creature to add to an underwater tableau which will grow over the weekend.

Working with radio collective In the Dark, the Whale Weekender will feature a special whale themed audio cinema, In the Dark x Whales on Friday night, 7th July (tickets £8).

The Whale Weekender will take place on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th July between 12pm and 4pm. Admission is free and is drop in: there is no need to book.

*Bringing together expert conservators from across the country: our own Emilia Kingham; Bethany Palumbo from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History; and Natalie Jones from the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology.

Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

3 Responses to “Help us build and clean a whale skeleton”

  • 1
    Whales on the Road | Orpiment wrote on 4 July 2017:

    […] will be assembled for the first time since the 1940s. You can read more about this in Jack’s blog here. The whale in question had toured the country before ending up, disarticulated in the Grant Museum. […]

  • 2
    Whales on the Road | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 6 July 2017:

    […] weekend, 8th and 9th July, the Grant Museum is running an event of massive proportions – the Whale Weekender – when the public is invited to come and rebuild and clean their whale skeleton. Long before […]

  • 3
    Alan wrote on 8 August 2017:

    That sounds like a whale of a time!:D

Leave a Reply