A Whale of a Story

Suspended above the College Street entrance for 100 years, the Museum’s largest specimen is hard to miss. Archivist Vanessa Finney reports.

Sperm Whale Skeleton

Carl Bento © Australian Museum

Next time you enter the Museum, look up at the huge whale skeleton hanging above you. Suspended in 1910, it’s the 57-foot (17.4-metre) skeleton of a male sperm whale that beached at Tom Thumb Lagoon near Wollongong in 1871.

Dispatched to take possession of the carcass, taxidermist JA Thorpe reported back to Curator Gerard Krefft that the whale, though a good deal decomposed, was ‘quite perfect’, apart from a few teeth souvenired by locals. The whale would be a welcome addition to the Museum’s collection of southern whales, which already included a smaller sperm whale collected in 1849.

Media story

The whale was a media story in Sydney, with Krefft reporting in the Daily Mail that it was one of only four such specimens held in museums worldwide, and certainly the biggest. At a time when whaling activity was declining around Sydney, it appeared that the whale had come off second best in a struggle with a whaleboat and had been dead for some weeks before washing onto the beach. Krefft urged readers to come to the Museum to see the two harpoons and lance retrieved from the carcass.

The whale itself was an object of intense curiosity in Wollongong where each day hundreds of people came to witness it putrefying on the beach. Thorpe and two assistants spent the next week or so flensing the whale for transfer to the Museum’s College Street premises.

The whale was too large to move from the beach in one piece. Weighing around 45 tonnes, it took a strong man to shift just one of its flippers and was said by a reporter from the Maitland Mercury to have ‘a breast bone as large as an ordinary sized table’. Eventually four cart loads of bones were shipped to the Museum by steamer.

Visitors were urged to view the whale bones and ‘make application to Mr Krefft’ for a portion of the valuable oil  (spermateci) collected from the whale’s head (see fact file, above). A sperm whale of this size would have yielded up to three tonnes of oil – little wonder the whale was valued at £800.

The bones were prepared immediately by Museum taxidermists in a specially constructed shed in the Museum grounds. The skeleton was not put on display until 1883 when it was installed in the Australia Hall (now the café). In 1895 it was moved to a new stand in the entrance hall, filling most of the available space.

Suspending the skeleton

In 1910 it was decided to suspend the whale skeleton from the entrance hall ceiling to mark the completion of the Museum’s new Vernon wing.

Begun as far back as 1899, the Vernon wing’s galleries provided much-needed spacious, light-filled display areas and a chance to move away from the ‘curio’ approach of earlier displays. It also provided an opportunity to rationalise, systematise and de-clutter the displays accumulated since the Barnet wing had opened to the public in 1868.

At the Museum entrance in 1910 we can only imagine the difference the new open space made to visitors, with the whale’s ‘unsightly substructure of ironwork’ removed and the skeleton suspended above them.

We have no records of how the suspension was achieved but, like Curator Robert Etheridge, regular visitors must have been ‘astonished’ at the improvement – just as many present-day visitors are, one hundred years later. If they look up.

Vanessa Finney,
Manager, Archives and Records

First published in Explore 32(4).


Michael Hugill , Online Producer (Content Strategy & Social Media)
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