How to Build a Blue Whale Without Having Seen One: Part I

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The Museum’s first whale model went on exhibit in 1908 and was 76 feet long. The model was located in the Hall of the Biology of Mammals, which closed when the Hall of Ocean Life opened. Made of plaster, the model was not salvageable. Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

“Not too long ago a colleague in Canada called and told me that his museum was planning to build a whale and did I have any suggestions? I had only one—resign now and get yourself a nice university job.” - Richard Van Gelder

In 1959, with its centennial looming ten years down the road, the American Museum of Natural History decided to complete its Hall of Ocean Life, which had been neglected and left dormant like a “sleeping giant,” museum employees said, for many of the years it had been open.

One of the finishing touches they wanted was a new blue whale model to replace the current one, which was made of wood covered in papier?mâché and had been around since 1908. After almost ten years of aesthetic arguments, technical hurdles and construction delays—and Richard Van Gelder, the museum’s chairman of the Department of Mammalogy and the whale’s chief designer, resigning from the Ocean Life Committee twice, from the Museum once and nearly getting fired three times (the last time being just the day before the official unveiling of the whale)—they finally got one.

Plus-Size Model

The problems started with the fact that, when the museum first began planning the model in 1959, very few people had ever actually laid eyes on a live blue whale, or even a photo of a whole one; most pictures gave just a glimpse of some small portion of the animal—part of a back or a tail or a fin poking out from the ocean—and the first full-body, underwater live shots wouldn’t be taken until the mid-1970s. This included some of the men tasked with designing the model. “So far as accuracy was concerned, I couldn’t see much wrong with [the old model],” Van Gelder wrote in Whale on my Back, a recollection of the project, “mainly because I had never seen a blue whale.”

Faced with the same problem at the beginning of the century, both the AMNH and the Smithsonian Institution had sent teams to go see some whales. Both went to whaling stations in Newfoundland, Canada, waiting days or weeks before the whalers landed anything. Van Gelder’s whale-making predecessor merely took measurements and made his model off of those, but the Smithsonian team had spent several more weeks making plaster molds of the huge decomposing whale, cutting away the flesh and dismantling the skeleton. The results of their labor, more than 26,000 pounds of bone and plaster casts, were then shipped to Washington to be assembled.

For the new project, casting was deemed too expensive and impractical for the AMNH, and a replica seemed to be the better way to go once again. Rather than send someone back to Canada to find another whale and take new measurements, Van Gelder and his team used the whale at the British Museum—built on-site in 1938 out of wood, going off measurements taken from “whale #112,” a whalers’ catch that a museum expedition had seen in the Antarctic—as a template.

Van Gelder and his team consulted both the British whale and and the new Smithsonian whale, which was also based off the British one, frequently over the next few years for inspiration and accuracy. Using the British Museum's model as a guide, they settled on a design and decided that the model would hang from the hall’s ceiling, posed as if it were in a dive.

Don’t Leave Me Hanging

Problems started again soon after.

“Nothing must hang from the ceiling,” a museum higher-up told Van Gelder. “I don’t like things hanging on strings.”

Van Gelder tried to explain it would actually hang on wires, but it didn’t matter. Hanging the whale from anything was out of the question.

Van Gelder went back to his office and thought about how else they could display the whale. He wrote: “‘Make it out of rubber and fill it with helium,’ I thought, but put the idea aside. Too much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Besides, we would probably have to anchor it with strings, and I didn’t know how far the string-ban went.”

Another museum higher-up approached him with a stringless plan. He suggested they build a pedestal in the middle of the hall, with a “gleaming chromium rod” jutting from it, and mount the whale on that. Van Gelder was not impressed with what he called the “lolly-pop concept,” and the other museum brass didn’t like it, either.

The Smithsonian had attached their whale directly to the wall, but Van Gelder, despite his interest in the model, called the display technique a “disgrace to the profession.” That the Smithsonian staff came in one morning to find that the whale’s head had detached from the body and fallen off the wall in the night did nothing to improve his opinion.

Van Gelder began to think about how one normally sees a whale: “Nothing more than a bit of fin, a puff of vapor, or a pair of flukes.” People didn’t see whole whales that often, and if they did, the whales were usually dead. To point out how few display options were available and highlight the absurdity of the string ban, Van Gelder half-jokingly proposed displaying the whale as if it were beached.

“I was shocked to learn,” he wrote, "that not only was the dead whale idea accepted, it was received enthusiastically.”

He’d made the mistake of presenting a plan that would cost the museum next to nothing, and soon found himself having to run with the idea and defend it from his heckling colleagues.

Van Gelder couldn’t bear to actually go through with the plan, but wasn’t sure how to get out of it. When another staffer suggested that it might be nice to add some models and recordings of the birds that would pick at a real whale carcass, a light bulb went off and Van Gelder knew how he’d undo the dead whale.

Not long after, it was Van Gelder’s turn to babysit a group of visiting museum donors. Over lunch, he explained to the Women’s Committee how the beached whale would look, sound and … smell.

“We are even planning something never done before,” he said. “A gentle breeze will waft the odor of the sea toward the visitors, to complete the attack on all the senses, and we are even going to try to simulate the odor of the decomposing whale, so that all can share in this wonderful experience in totality.”

After word of this got back to the bosses, the dead whale was out and Van Gelder was back to square one. The head of the Exhibition Department eventually saved him with a suggestion that had been sitting right under his nose. Van Gelder was “so brainwashed about anything hanging,” he wrote, that he would “never in a million years” have come up with the new idea. If they couldn’t hang the whale from the ceiling with strings, the exhibitor thought, they should just skip the strings and attach the whale directly to the ceiling.

And that's what they did.

Stay tuned for Part II, about the construction of the whale and the anus that wasn’t there.

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November 19, 2012 - 8:00am
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