High time for a check up

by Bethany Palumbo, life collections conservator

This month marks three years since the completion of our ‘Once in a Whale’ project. The initial conservation undertaken in 2013 focused on the cleaning and stabilisation of five whale skeletons, which had hung from the roof of the Museum for over 100 years.

The skeletons were lowered into a special conservation space, where the team were able to work up close with the specimens. As well as the cleaning, they improved incorrect skeletal anatomy, replacing old corroded wiring with new stainless steel. For final display, the specimens were put into size order and rigged using new steel wiring, with the larger specimens being lifted higher into the roof space to make them a more prominent display than previously. You can read all about the project on our blog, Once in a Whale.

Three years on, our conservation team felt it was a good time to check on the specimens to see how they’re coping, post-treatment, in the fluctuating museum environment.

Conservation intern Stefani Cavazos works on high to clean the Beaked Whale

It’s been wonderful to see the whales on display and their new position looks very impressive. However, when the time came for making this recent conservation assessment, the new height was greater than any of our ladders could reach. Specialist scaffolding was brought in to allow the conservators to access the specimens. Starting at the highest level, with our Beaked Whale, cleaning was completed using a vacuum and soft brush for delicate areas. This removed a thick layer of dust and particulate debris: especially satisfying work!

Dust gathered on the Beaked Whale fin

With cleaning complete, visual assessments could then be undertaken. These showed that while the specimens were still very stable, a few areas of bone have continued to deteriorate, visible in cracking and flaking of the surface. In other areas, the fatty secretions which we previously removed using ammonia had once again started to emerge. We had expected to see this though, because, in life these whales’ bodies contained a lot of fat, deep within the bones and this is notoriously impossible to completely remove.

Lubricant stain seen on a vertebra

It was also observed that the lubrication used on the new rigging bolts had melted and dripped down the wires. You can see in the photo above how this has become drawn into the vertebrae of the Orca and Common Dolphin, staining them yellow. While no conservation treatment was undertaken due to time restrictions, thorough photography was performed to document these changes and once time permits this can be carried out.

This shows how conservation work, especially with natural history specimens, is a gradual, ongoing process. With frequent check-ups and specialist attention, these whales will be able to continue their life as our beautiful display specimens.

Twice in a whale


By Mark Carnall, Life Collections

Followers of our Once in a Whale blog a while back may be aware of the huge task that faced our Life Collections conservator Bethany Palumbo and her team as they set out to clean, restore and repair the whale skeletons that hang from the Museum roof.

In my first week here, I received an enquiry about the history of these specimens, and digging through the archives I was pleased to find that they are not just ‘prop’ skeletons acquired for the purpose of display – they are important in the history of whale biology too. So this article is something of a postscript to the Once in a Whale project.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that much was understood about the science of the largest animals to have lived on Earth. Some species were known from strandings; others from accounts – varying in reliability – from fishermen.

img_5415small-copyYet difficulties in preserving and transporting such large creatures (as well as the penchant for eating stranded whales at community festivals) meant that the biology and behaviour of whales was poorly-described and documented until fairly recently. So much so, that in early scientific literature just a few scientists are singled out as having actually seen the animals they were studying.

In the Museum there are five whale skeletons suspended from the roof, along with the skull of a Humpback Whale and the mandible of a Sperm Whale. Some of the earliest ‘whaleologists’ made the trip to Oxford to see these specimens in a race to formally describe new species or new aspects of whale biology.

In particular, two 19th-century anatomists competed to make new discoveries about whales. Dr John Edward Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum (Natural History), and Professor Daniel Frederick Eschricht, a Danish comparative anatomist, were so competitive that Gray made sniping comments in formal papers, questioning Eschricht’s observations.

John Edward Gray ‘destroying’ Eschricht’s observations. From Gray, J. E. 1864. On the Cetacea which have been observed in the seas surrounding the British islands.
John Edward Gray ‘destroying’ Eschricht’s observations. From Gray, J. E. 1864, On the Cetacea which have been observed in the seas surrounding the British islands

But perhaps this competition was more sporting than malicious: Gray did name the gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, in Daniel Eschricht’s honour.

Eschricht actually presented the Museum with two of the specimens now on display: the Humpback Whale skull at the entrance and the suspended Minke Whale skeleton. Of the others, the Bottlenose Dolphin skeleton was caught near Holyhead in 1868 and was drawn by another notable natural historian, William Henry Flower, before being skeletonised for the Museum.

The Orca skeleton is from an individual killed in the Bristol Channel by fishermen in 1872, and the Beluga Whale was collected from Spitsbergen, Norway in 1881 and presented by Alfred Henge Cocks, who donated a range of mammal specimens to the University of Oxford.

The female Northern Bottle-nosed Whale skeleton has been harder to track down. It’s possibly a specimen shot in Weston Super-Mare in 1860 mentioned by Gray, but it isn’t clear. Lastly, there’s the large Sperm Whale mandible that greets visitors at the entrance. It doesn’t have much of a recorded history, but is allegedly one of the largest specimens in the UK according to a ‘researcher’ whom I’ve yet to track down.

William Flower’s drawing of the bottlenose dolphin (lower) the skeleton from this individual is on display in the museum Flower, W. H. (1880), I. On the External Characters of two Species of British Dolphins (Delphinus delphis, Linn., and Delphinus tursio, Fabr.). The Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, 11: 1–6. doi: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.1980.tb00343.xWilliam Flower’s drawing of the bottlenose dolphin (lower) the skeleton from this individual is on display in the museum Flower, W. H. (1880), I. On the External Characters of two Species of British Dolphins (Delphinus delphis, Linn., and Delphinus tursio, Fabr.). The Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, 11: 1–6. doi: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.1980.tb00343.x
William Flower’s drawing of the Bottle-nosed Dolphin (lower); the skeleton from this individual is on display in the Museum

The next time you are in the Museum, do look up: the skeletons there are not simply representing ‘whaleness’ but are also individual animals and important specimens in the early discovery and description of whale biology.

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

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

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