Humpback in action


The sight of a huge Sperm Whale jaw soaring up to the roof is a familiar welcome to our visitors. But this spectacular specimen now has a companion. Resting against the opposite side of the cast iron column is a Humpback Whale skull.

9 mandibleThe skull was donated back in the 19th Century by well-known scientist Professor Eschricht of Copenhagen.

Over the decades the specimen has been displayed in all sorts of places and positions around the Museum – laid flat on the floor, upright and on top of cases. Last year, as part of our Once in a Whale project, the specimen joined our other whale skeletons in undergoing some much-needed conservation treatment. You can find out the story of its big clean-up on the project blog.

The skull is now displayed beautifully on a stand – but it was no mean feat to get it there. Bill Richey, the Museum’s Cabinet Maker, and Peter Johnson, Workshop & Maintenance, have carefully moved the specimen from the corner of the Museum where it was undergoing conservation treatment, reconstructed the complex structure and built a bespoke stand to support its huge weight. Here’s a step by step guide to rebuilding a Humpback Whale skull:

1 Base_smallFirst, Bill used his years of experience in the Museum to build a display stand that perfectly held the complex contours of the bone. He scribed around the base of the skull, making a layer of MDF to fit each curve. Once he was confident of the perfect fit, he screwed them all together (see left photo), before returning to the workshop to square it all up, sand and paint the finished thing. He added a cushioning layer of Plastazote foam to the top surface, which would touch the skull.

Now to move the skull to its new location…

3 moving_small

Because Bill and Pete had no idea how heavy the specimen would be, they decided not to take any risks and used the lifting machine to carry the weight. Keeping the specimen and themselves safe throughout the process was the most important thing.

Once they’d lowered the skull down to the floor, they used ratchets to hold it in place and secure the new base, using pieces of Plastazote foam to protect the sharp edges of the bone.

5 moving_small

They then used the lift to tilt the skull into an upright position… to the point of no return. Bill says at this moment he was thinking;

I just hope it doesn’t crush Pete!

6 upright_small

7 upright_small

There was a sense of enormous relief at this point – the skull was upright, stable and fully supported by the new base. But Pete explained that the pressure was heightened throughout the process, because it was all so public. As it took several days, a lot of the work had to be done during normal opening hours, leading to a lot of intrigued visitors watching with great interest. No room to make a mistake without it being very obvious!

10 mandible_small

With the skull now safely in its new location, the construction began. Fitting the jaw bones was a serious jigsaw puzzle – working out which bits slotted in where and how to secure them safely to the column without any further damage.


To everyone’s relief, the Humpback Whale skull is now sitting proudly in its new stand, beautifully mirroring the neighbouring jaw. I’m sure Pete and Bill are hoping it won’t need moving again for quite some time…

Final photo_small

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

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More than a Dodo

I'm Public Engagement Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I look after permanent displays and other interpretation. I do a bit of social media on the side, too.

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