The legend of the Layardi Whale

After - seperate proper right

The Museum gains a new buzz over the summer as we’re joined by a host of interns. Many are students who require a placement as part of their university degree. Ruth Murgatroyd, who is in her first year of the MSc Conservation Practice programme at Cardiff University, is spending her summer putting a variety of conservation skills into practice in our Life Collections.

During our 2013 year of closure, five large whale skeletons received extensive conservation treatment, which was described and documented on the Once in a Whale blog. Here, Ruth explains that there is more to be done conserving other whale specimens in our collection, and describes the careful work that it takes to bring them back to their best.


One of the specimens I’ve been working on in the lab is the skull of a Layard’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon layardi). As with many historic specimens, past repairs had become damaged or discoloured. The porous bone that allows whales to be buoyant under water had darkened and acquired staining and tide marks. It needed some attention.

Before PL Break
The brown material is animal glue, used in a previous conservation

It’s important to research specimens, to gain a full picture of the animal and its origin. This one turned out to have a particularly interesting story. I knew that the whale’s skull entered the collection in 1874, coming from Cape Point, South Africa, and attributed to J. Mackellar. Over tea time conversations with a colleague in the Museum it came to light that it might be the same whale mentioned by Henry Moseley (1844-1891), a naturalist on board the HMS Challenger voyage. In Moseley’s Notes by a Naturalist he mentions finding a Layardi cranium on a beach “near Mr Mckellar’s” in Cape Point in 1874. He described how it had its beak pushed into the sand and was being used as a target for rifle practice.

Cleaning with the rubber smoke sponge
Cleaning with the rubber smoke sponge

After assessing the condition and taking pre-treatment photographs, I decided that the main objectives of the conservation were to remove past unsympathetic repairs; consolidate the bone around a break; clean the staining; and provide padding to the wooden support.

Cleaning needed different techniques depending on the location and the problem. Brush dusting with a vacuum cleaner and dry cleaning with a rubber smoke sponge was the first stage, followed by more specific treatments for ingrained stains. They were treated with poultices, which slowly release water into the pores of the bone and draw out soluble impurities as they evaporate.

I removed the brown adhesive using water on a swab. A pungent smell was given off that tells me the last conservator had used animal glue. I replaced this with an easily reversible acrylic resin.

The beak had been severely damaged (perhaps from the rifle practice!?), but its weight poses a conservation problem. An adhesive strong enough to support the weight of the repair is likely to be stronger than the bone and any stresses on the repair may result in further damage to the bone rather than to the adhesive. As the whale is going back into store for now, we decided that the two fragments will be left separate. The two fragments can be seen here in the wooden support.

After PR
Both fragments together in a wooden support

Although we can’t be sure that this is the Challenger whale specimen, the possibility certainly added an extra level of intrigue to this fascinating project.

Ruth presenting the whale to visitors as part of our Spotlight Specimens strand
Ruth presents the whale conservation work to visitors as part of our Spotlight Specimens strand

Ruth Murgatroyd, Intern, Life Collections

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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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