Whale conservation chapter completed

We are nearing the very end of our time in the ‘whale aisle’- it has been a wonderful yet somewhat exhausting time! We made it through a heat-wave summer clad in Tyvek suits and overcame vitamin D deficiencies due to a lack of natural lighting.
The whales were affectionately given nicknames and individual specimens adopted by conservators dedicating their time to pampering those in particular, who in turn visited us in our sleep (no, really)! This blog entry provides an update of our ‘Once in a whale’ project.

Minke Whale post treatment

Minke Whale post treatment

Orca whale smiling once more

Orca Whale smiling once more

Over the past six months the seven specimens have received our undivided care and attention: Their bones have been cleared of dust and oil secretions; fragile and vulnerable areas have been consolidated; previously degraded repairs conserved; old copper and iron wires removed and replaced with stainless steel; and the skeletons’ anatomy corrected where possible through re-articulation. Since our last project update, the ribcages, mandibles and fins have been re-articulated and re-attached using new bolts and nuts.

Dolphin pre (above) and post treatment (below)

Dolphin pre and post treatment

Northern bottlenose whale pre (above) and post (below) treatment

Northern Bottlenose Whale pre and post treatment (with original teeth installed)

Minke pre (above) and post (below) treatment

Minke Whale pre and post treatment (with skull straightened)

Orca pre (above) and post (below) treatment

Orca Whale pre and post treatment

Beluga pre (above) and post (below) treatment

Beluga Whale pre and post treatment

This last stage has been very satisfying, but seeing the skeletons ‘come back together’, has also left us feeling a little lost- we nursed the whales back to health over many months, during which we grew very fond of them, and now we must let them return to the display for all to admire!

Our blog
Our blog ‘www.onceinawhale.com’ set out to capture and convey the conservation process including the material science and expected degradation pathways of skeletal material. We shared our treatment rationale and methodology, and showed before, during and after treatment images. We have been overjoyed with the international blog following we have received and are thankful to all readers who commented on, shared or ‘liked’ our posts!

As my contract at the museum now nears its end, I hand over the blog strings to my colleagues, who will continue to share the project with you!

Creative professionals and enthusiasts have been inspired to join us in the ‘whale aisle’ to illustrate, film and photograph work being carried out on the cetacean specimens. Journalists and broadcasters at Oxford Mail News and BBC Radio Oxford featured articles and interviews and our social media presence has been amazing to see. We have also loved sharing the opportunity to see the skeletons up close and learn about the conservation involved with fellow and further afield museum colleagues, conference attendees, fellow conservators and local school pupils.

During the imminent process of dismantling the scaffolding, the five skeletons will be re-positioned and elevated back into the museum space above visitor’s heads, forming a dynamic display allowing visitors to appreciate the specimens from below as well as from the upper gallery. Do come visit the whales after our reopening in February 2014!

The Once in a Whale Team - Nicola Crompton, Bethany Palumbo and Gemma Aboe (left to right)

The Once in a Whale Team – Nicola Crompton, Bethany Palumbo and Gemma Aboe (left to right)

– Thanks again to all our blog followers, more to follow soon!

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator
Nicola Crompton, Conservation Intern

Conservators in the making

Over the last couple of weeks our conservation team has been involved in the popular ‘Making Museums’ school project hosted between the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Bethany, Nicola and I took turns to lead behind-the-scenes tours of our ‘whale aisle’, during which 10-11 year old pupils from East Oxford primary schools were introduced to ‘conservation’ as a wonderful museum profession.

Pupils learned about the importance of specimens to the museum and scientists, what affected the condition of the skeletons, how we conserved the whales, how and why whale anatomy differs between species and about what talents and special interests conservators bring to the profession.


Nicola Crompton demonstrating cleaning the Orca Whale (with ammonia) using a toothbrush

We loved seeing their eyes widen at the size of our enormous Sperm Whale mandible, their disgust at handling a ball of tar-like degraded whale oil, their bewilderment at the fact whales have floating pelvises, and their bemusement at whales having ‘hand’ bones.

Gemma Aboe

Gemma Aboe conveying the scientific importance of the Sperm Whale mandible (top), Beluga Whale (below)

While some pupils surprised us with their knowledge of the effects of corrosion, others challenged us with questions about provenance, and again others amused us with queries including ‘who would win a fight between a Bottlenose Whale and a Killer (Orca) Whale?’


Bethany Palumbo communicating conservation issues with the Bottlenose Whale

At the end of the tours, the pupils were thrilled to have joined the privileged ‘VIP club’ (as termed by a pupil) of lucky people who have seen the whale skeletons up close. We may have even planted a few seeds in some young minds about a potential career in conservation.

Only two weeks until project completion- watch this space!

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator