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How to Move a Whale

By: Madelaine Love, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 23 Dec 2016

Moving a giant whale skeleton is serious business at the AM. AM’s Natural Sciences Conservator Sheldon Teare fills us in on what it takes.

Sei Whale skeleton removal from the Long Gallery

Sei Whale skeleton removal from the Long Gallery
Photographer: Abram Powell © Australian Museum

Ok, so you have to move a whale skeleton. Can you give us an overview of the process? There is quite a lot of work involved as you might imagine, but most of it involves documentation and behind the scenes Conservation work.

The first thing was to figure out how to go about moving the whale. Our Preparator Yuri spent a long time investigating the safest method for a project of this scale. As Natural Sciences Conservator I try to foresee any risk to the specimen, and then work with Yuri to mitigate them. Once this project was underway, I handed it over to a colleague – Conservator, Brooke Randall.

Brooke took detailed photography and written condition reports so we have an accurate record of the whale’s condition at this point in time. This was obviously a pretty big task to undertake.

Next all the bones that were going to be disarticulated were numbered, so we knew which order they went back in when installed into the Surviving Australia Gallery. Brooke took a bit of time to give the specimen a basic Conservation clean at this point as well.

Splitting the whale into three sections – head, ribs, and tail – was pretty straightforward. It was all the planning related to those tasks that took up a lot of time. The forelimbs and lower vertebrae were relocated to the Conservation lab, as they were now individual pieces. The rib cage was stored temporarily, suspended in a large metal frame, near Conservation for Brooke to work on. Several historical fills in the bone and some breaks needed to be repaired. This was another time consuming job for Brooke who spent many hours carving back old fills and replacing with modern conservation materials.

All the historical cork used as spacers between the vertebral sections had to be removed. The cork had deteriorated so it was no longer cushioning the bone. Brooke hand crafted new spacers out of archival grade foam to replace the cork.

Missing elements will have to be replicated and reintegrated into the skeleton. For example a missing rib bone.

Finally all the sections are moved into place in the Surviving Australia gallery, rethreaded onto the armature and hoisted into place. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Hmmm…not exactly! So how long does the process of disarticulation take?
De-installing/disarticulation only took a few hours. However the treatment process/preparation of the whale to be reinstalled took a number of weeks.

How many people work on a project like this?
There were about four people working on this project, but Conservator Brooke has worked full time on it for a number of weeks. Yuri has coordinated the de-install/reinstall, rigging and created a metal support structure for the whales phalanges. Conservator Megan has carved the whale a new rib from light weight Balsa wood and I have offered advise throughout the process as Natural Science Conservator and having worked on other whales in the past.

Anything else of interest you’d like to add?
It was very interesting from a Conservation point of view to see that four or five different adhesives have been used to repair the rib cage over the last few decades. All but one appears to be what we would call a conservation grade adhesive, which means they are not very easy to remove and re-integrate into a modern conservation treatment. All our Conservation treatments aim to be as removable or re-treatable as possible. We would want our repairs to come apart easily, without damaging the specimen, so the new methods could be applied. Not like poor Brooke having to file away insoluble adhesives for hours on end!