Whale tale

Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

One of the most uplifting projects here over the past year or so (literally, as you’ll see) has been the conservation work on the five whale skeletons suspended in the court. The skeletons are beautiful, the process was intricate, and the whole thing was rigorously documented on our accompanying Once in a Whale blog.

The work inspired filmmaker Robert Rapoport to record some eerily captivating footage of our conservators at work, and the project itself was Highly Commended in the Museums + Heritage Awards.

Northern Bottle-nosed Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus)
Northern Bottle-nosed Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus)

At completion, the whales were raised once again into the vaulted space, but this time rearranged in size order and staggered in their distance from the ground. Each has its own spotlight, creating an impressive display, especially once darkness falls outside.

But there was a final element to the displays that has just been installed: information panels containing details about each of the species suspended above, along with drawings and paintings created for us by artists Nicola Fielding and Claire Duffy.

Claire’s paintings of the whales have been used in a scaled schematic of the display, each ‘fleshed out’ to give an impression of the whale in its full form; and Nicola’s accurate recreations of the skeletons are featured in a second panel which gives details of the conservation project itself.

A schematic drawing of the whales suspended in the court, along with further information about each species
A schematic drawing of the whales suspended in the court, along with further information about each species

Nicola is something of an old hand when it comes to making drawings for the Museum – her work is featured on lots of our family trails already. But the whale project seems to hold a special place in her heart:

I could write a short essay about how much being involved in the whale project meant to me. I’ve always been mesmerised by cetaceans and by the mythical status they can have. In a museum, hanging alongside dinosaur skeletons, they can seem like something we only know from pictures and imaginings. But cetaceans are of course still living, breathing and can be found in all corners of the worlds oceans. Even around the UK there are so many species to be found.

So I was really excited to be involved in a project that would allow the Museum to make the most of its incredible skeletons, and to make sure all the knowledge we do have about them is shared.

Whale aisle interp v32
One of the panels in the whale aisle gives details of the conservation project

We hope the new information panels at each end of the whale aisle will encourage visitors to look up and perhaps share in Nicola’s wonder for these amazing creatures, many of which were almost hunted to extinction during the periods of intense industrial whaling.

Finally, if if you like the look of these paintings, there’s a last chance to see some of Claire Duffy’s other work in her Avifauna show at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, which runs until Saturday 8 November.

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer

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