The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) hanging in Hawaiian Hall was the very first object from our collection to go on display and has become a flagship specimen for the Bishop Museum. Purchased in 1901 from Ward’s Natural Science Establishment for $2500, it has since taken on a life of its own. From accession to assembly, to research and preservation, it serves as an example of the efforts needed to create and maintain natural history exhibitions. What follows is a brief overview of this particular specimen’s “life” after death.
Prior to shipment, the skull was stored at high temperatures to remove the oils common among cetaceans (whales hold immense oil reserves within their tissues). While it is not entirely clear how the rest of the skeleton was prepared, a common practice of that time involved removing meat at sea, boiling the skeleton of excess tissues and baking it to dry. After being assembled by Ward’s staff, both the skeleton and papier-mache shell were sent by rail and sea to Honolulu. But soon after setup began, an accident occurred.
In a letter dated January 15th, 1902, Dr. Brigham of the Bishop Museum wrote to Ward’s Natural History Establishment for urgent assistance. After the entire skeleton had been hung and efforts were underway to attach the outer papier-mache skin, a chain snapped. The skull and adjoining papier-mache promptly plummeted onto some scaffolding, missing a number of workers by a narrow margin. Although the skull itself was relatively undamaged, the papier-mache was not so fortunate. Cracked and bent, it was in need of swift repair. A recipe for creating more papier-mache was hastily sent back to the Bishop Museum, and the damaged section was mended.
Installation was completed a few months later, and the whale hasn’t moved since. More than 55 feet long, it has been identified as a full grown male. The skull itself accounts for 18 feet and weighs approximately 3,000 pounds. The right side of the articulated skeleton is covered in the aforementioned papier-mache shell, replicating the skin and contours of the body. The left side is completely exposed to reveal the skeletal anatomy. Visible lines demarcating the individual sections of papier-mache still exist along its body, as do many of the original mountings. Save for a few modifications, these features have not been touched in favor of preserving historical authenticity.
A general restoration of the whale and its support structures took place in 1989. Then again in 2007. In addition to broad-spectrum cleaning, the papier-mache shell was mended using a colored epoxy. Per the recommendations of a structural engineer, the hyoid and pelvic bones were detached and replaced with stainless steel wiring. Press were allowed access to this latter restoration, and the story gained publicity as renovations for Hawaiian Hall were jointly under way.
Most interestingly, in 2005, a tiny portion of the whale’s scapula (shoulder blade) was extracted for DNA analysis. A small hole (1.5mm) was drilled into the specimen, and shavings of bone were collected from inside after cleansing with alcohol. The goal of this project, among other things, was to determine the oceanic region of the whale based upon its genetic information. Although results were inconclusive, this study helped to develop techniques for the extraction and amplification of DNA from bones and teeth of dubious origin.
A final note on the value of marine mammal specimens within museums. While it has historically been acceptable to hunt whales for their flesh, oils and bones, we now live in more ecologically-minded times. Since the Marine Mammal Act of 1972 such practices have increasingly been abandoned worldwide. It is important for natural history museums around the globe with marine mammal collections to not only use these specimens for research, but to present them to the public. By serving as a reminder of the past and encouraging awareness of conservation challenges, these specimens can help protect the future of these magnificent animals through education and advocacy.
For more general information about sperm whales from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), click here.
If you wish to listen to cetacean sounds from NOAA, click here.