Into the Light


With the whales safely installed back in the roof space, it was time to throw open our doors and finally open to the public. The specimens are now in size order and are staggered in their distance from the ground. Each has its own spotlight, resulting in an impressive display, especially once darkness falls outside. These photos show the specimens in their final resting place. February 15th saw our ‘Dawn til Dusk’ re-opening event, where Bethany and I conducted short tours of the whale aisle to the general public (we were amazed to find a few of which were keen followers of this blog!)

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As mentioned in previous our blog entry ‘Whales whisper in the dark’, our project was the feature in a piece by free-lance film maker Robert Rapoport. He describes the film: ‘Whales spend a good part of their lives under conditions hard for us to imagine, much less represent. In April 2013 the whale skeletons, seen behind you, were lowered from the roof space, where they had hung for 150 years. After six months the whales re-emerged from the restoration process as more accurate representations of what they once were. This film abstracts what was a very complex process, offering an expanded set of associations along the way. It is also a tribute to the very human side of this scientific resurrection’

Thank you Robert for putting this together for us! You can watch it on a loop in the museum if you can’t get enough.

Nicola Crompton, Conservation Intern
Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Collections


Whales On Film

These stunning film stills were taken in collaboration with artist and film-maker Jessica Rinland who joined us in the Whale Aisle to document the ‘Once in a Whale’ project.

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Jessica graduated in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins, London, and approached us to gather material for her work, which has an ongoing theme of whale biology and their impact on her as an artist.

‘In 2011 I encountered a stranded whale on the shores of Pegwell Bay, Kent. Struck by the immensity of the mammal, the spectacle that it created, and the scientists that were performing the visible necropsy, I began to investigate the reasons why they strand. The elusive truth behind the behaviour of these creatures, difficult to discern through theories that often seem as outlandish as folk law, has become the subject of my current body of work.’

The nature of Jessica’s analogue work (see the stills below) is something we were really excited to be involved in, it’s wonderful as conservators to see the preservation of traditional methods of film-making.

‘I like the discipline of having one roll of 100ft and having to pay attention to what is going on around me, choosing moments, rather than continuous shooting. And the delay from shooting to watching back the footage allows me time to evaluate my memory of the moment before seeing what I captured.

A great analogy is that film is like painting with oils and digital is like painting with acrylics – someone else said that but it’s pretty accurate. They are two different mediums that both have their negative and positive traits.’


We wish to thank Jessica Rinland for involving us in her work, and we will look forward to sharing her film with you.

Also, if you’re interested in seeing Jessica’s work, there is an event at the London Review Bookshop on February 12th 2014.

Nicola Crompton, Conservation Intern

Whales whisper in the dark

In this blog entry we give you a sneak preview showcasing atmospheric film stills taken while documenting conservation work on the whales by freelance film maker Robert Rapoport.

Robert is completing a PhD at Oxford University (Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art) focusing on film theory. Inspired by our blog, he contacted us with the prospect of producing a short film, highlighting the ‘poetic fusing of craft and science’ that takes place during conservation.

We present you with two collages made of Robert Rapoport’s film stills:


Images feature conservators Bethany Palumbo and Nicola Crompton


Images feature conservators Bethany Palumbo and Nicola Crompton

In a future blog entry, we hope to share Robert’s film with you- we can’t wait to see it ourselves 🙂

We wish to thank Robert Rapoport for kindly sharing his time, expertise, vision and images with us!

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator

Objects of intrigue- a relative of Moby Dick’s?

As part of our cetacean conservation project, we have recently been treating the lower mandible of a Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758), the largest of the toothed whales. This specimen originally  came to the Museum from Christ Church Anatomical Museum in Oxford (Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager). Our specimen’s jaw, measuring 4.56m in length, is thought to have originated from an ‘88 foot long’ (26.82m) Sperm Whale from the pre-industrial whaling period (pre 1840), far exceeding contemporary species sizes (Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager). It is rumoured to be one of the largest held in a museum collection. Do you know of any larger Sperm Whale mandibles out there? 

Sperm Whale mandible below and above scaffolding platform

Sperm Whale mandible below and above scaffolding platform

The lower mandible, consisting of dense bone and cone-shaped teeth, rests upright against an architectural column at the entrance of the museum, yet is currently surrounded by a scaffolding network and a horizontal platform in the upper third of the jaw. The areas readily accessible to human touch, were visibly stained with a dark grease, while teeth showed dusty water drip marks- all of which could be reduced through treatment.

G. Aboe degreasing surfaces with ammonia

G. Aboe degreasing surfaces with ammonia

Surface areas before (dark) and after (light) treatment

Surface areas before (dark) and after (light) treatment

As conservators working beneath this imposing structure, or at a considerable height, we are made to feel very small and the work conjures up images of Moby Dick, a mythical albino Sperm Whale, immortalized in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, or the Whale.

Moby Dick book illustration, p510

Moby Dick book illustration, p510

Moby Dick upon being harpooned capsized a fictional boat, killing all but one of its men, the story of which has inspired numerous adaptations and illustrations, (four of which the illustrator in me has selected for visual indulgence).

Moby Dick illustrations (R. A. Forshall, L. Pearson, Book Covet, Kiss my Shades)

Moby Dick illustrations (R. A. Forshall, L. Pearson, Book Covet, Kiss my Shades)

Interestingly, Herman Melville’s novel is based on a true story about a Sperm Whale that attacked and sank the American whaleship ‘Essex(from Nantucket, Massachusetts) in the southern Pacific Ocean in 1820.
One of the survivors, a 14 year old cabin boy at the time, Thomas Nickerson, later wrote an account of the sinking titled ‘The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats’, eventually published in 1984.

The Essex being struck by a whale on November 20, 1820 (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

The Essex being struck by a whale on November 20, 1820 (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

Both fictional and factual accounts of encounters with unsuspecting Sperm Whales, provided us with plenty of thought, while working our way up and down the jaw.

Sperm Whale hunting
During the 18th and 19th century, whalers were drawn to Sperm Whales for their ivory-like teeth (18-24), weighing up to 1kg each, embedded in the lower jaw. The teeth were crafted into practical as well as decorative pieces, such as when decorated with inked engravings, known as scrimshaw. Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, refers to “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other skrimshander articles” (Melville, 1851, ch57).

Whaling scene carved by Edward Burdett (Nantucket Whaling Museum)

Whaling scene carved by Edward Burdett (Nantucket Whaling Museum)

Spermaceti (from the spermaceti organ) and sperm oil (from blubber) were also much sought after by whalers, since these substances were heavily relied upon for commercial applications (including soap and leather waterproofing), with increased demand caused by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Sperm Whale oils were used for public lighting (including lighthouses) and for lubricating machinery, (including cotton mills), before the discovery of mineral oil.

Sperm oil bottle and can (New Bedford Whaling Museum)

Sperm oil bottle and can (New Bedford Whaling Museum)

Ambergris, another popular product with whalers, is produced in the digestive system of the Sperm Whale, and was highly valued as a perfume ingredient.

While we can only ponder on the previous life story of our Sperm Whale, we endeavour to do our best to document its museum life from hereon.

Do visit our blog again, for an update on how we’re doing with re-articulating our cetacean specimens – an exciting new phase of the “Once in a Whale” project!

 Further readings:

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator

‘Thou art as a whale…’

Nicola Fielding has been up close with our whales to produce smart line drawings.
We may annotate these for our conservation records.

Fin Whale

Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata Lacépède, 1804) (

Jonathan Delafield Cook recently exhibited charcoal drawings inspired by the research and travels of Charles Darwin at Purdy Hicks Gallery. The exhibition included a LARGE scale Sperm whale!

Sperm Whale (physeter macrocephalus)

Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758), (

Watch this space for more whale art posts…

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator