The team is headed by Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Sciences at the OUMNH. Bethany recently completed a Conservation Fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Her enthusiasm for Natural Sciences Conservation began in 2007 as she undertook her undergraduate degree in Conservation at the University of Lincoln.
Assistant Conservator, Gemma Aboe completed an MSc in Conservation Practice at Cardiff University. Having previously enjoyed working on organic and ethnographic materials at the British Museum and The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, Gemma is now excited to be part of this museum history making ‘whale conservation project’.
Conservation intern, Nicola Crompton, recently joined the team after graduating from the BA Conservation and Restoration degree at Lincoln University. With an enthusiasm for organic materials, Nicola undertook a placement at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology and is now delighted at the opportunity to gain post-qualification conservation experience.
The specimens were acquired by the museum during the 19th century and were originally suspended from the museum roof, as can be seen below, in a photograph taken in 1892.
Over the course of the next six months, we should be on familiar terms with our five ‘cetaceans’, the order for marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises. The specimens have been lowered and are now temporarily suspended from scaffolding at waist height, allowing us greater access to them.
The project will cover the conservation treatment of five complete skeletons, one lower mandible and one skull. The specimens are divided into the sub-orders Mysticeti (baleen whales) and Odontoceti (toothed whales).
The Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas (Pallas, 1776)) is a toothed cetacean adapted to life in the Arctic. Its Latin name implies “white dolphin without (dorsal) fin”. The now “near threatened” whale was acquired from Norway in 1881. The skeleton is the first specimen visible through the temporary window near the entrance of the museum. It measures 4.15m in length.
The Orca or Killer Whale (Orcinus orca (Linnaeus, 1758)) is the largest cetacean of the oceanic Delphinidae family, found in all oceans and most seas. Its Latin name implies “of the kingdom of the dead”. The Killer Whale is easily recognisable by its colouration, with a black dorsal side and white ventral side. Little information is available on the abundance of this species (data deficient IUCN 2013 category). This specimen was killed by fishermen in the Bristol Channel in 1872 and measures 4.45m in length. It is positioned 2nd from the glass window on the West side of the museum.
The Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata, Lacépède, 1804) is the second smallest ‘baleen’ cetacean after the Pygmy Right Whale. In terms of conservation status it is considered of least concern (IUCN 2013) and is found in all major oceans. The colouration of this whale is usually black/grey on the dorsal side with a white ventral side, and a white band on each flipper on the Northern Hemisphere variety. Our skeleton, likely a juvenile, measures 4.85m in length.
The Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770)) is a toothed cetacean,
distinguished by an elongated ‘beak’ similar to a common dolphin. This whale, grey in colouration, is found in all oceans and is categorised ‘data deficient’ on the IUCN 2013 list. The skeleton facing the East end of the museum, measures 7.3m in length.
The Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus (Montagu, 1821)) is a toothed cetacean, usually found in tropical to temperate oceans. This species is categorised ‘of least concern’ on the IUCN 2013 list. This skeleton, acquired in 1872, can be seen through the temporary window near the Pitt River’s Museum entrance (East). This specimen is the smallest in our collection measuring only 2.38m in length.
Included in the project is also the lower mandible of a Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758), the largest of the toothed whales, now classified as ‘vulnerable A1d’ (IUCN 2013 . It is currently displayed upright against an architectural column. The specimen measures 4.56m in length. Originally displayed on the other side of the same museum column, was the skull of a Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae (Borowski, 1781)), which is now awaiting conservation treatment.
Preliminary conservation work
On view to the passing public through a couple of glass windows, equipped with hard hats, camera and laptop, we will be crouching under whale skulls noting lipid secretions, climbing in and out of whale rib cages inspecting metal supports, inching along vertebrae examining cracks and previous repairs, kneeling to identify missing segments of phalanges and recording the condition of remaining skin and cartilage. Thus, the first stage of our ‘Once in a whale’ project will consist of methodically condition recording and photographically documenting the cetacean skeletons prior to devising and carrying out treatment, which last took place ‘once upon a time, over 100 years ago’…
Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator