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How to Clean a 94-Foot Blue Whale Model

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Photos by Christian Jensen

As Exhibition Maintenance Manager at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Brittany Janaszak spends most of her time doing triage. "I'm a one person department, responsible for everything that's on display in the entire museum—temporary shows included," she tells mental_floss. "Typically my scheduled dustings and fixes are postponed due to issues that arise daily, so I deal with graphics breaking, prints falling off walls, objects falling off mounts, and dust. Lots and lots of dust." And once a year, she undertakes her biggest dusting of all, hopping in an aerial lift, strapping on a safety harness, and vacuuming off the museum's 94-foot-long blue whale, which hangs above the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. mental_floss was there as Janaszak performed part of the cleaning.

Janaszak has been the museum's official whale cleaner since 2011, when she got the job as Exhibit Maintenance Manager; previously, she had worked in Exhibition. Though in the past the job was accomplished with scaffolding and several cleaners, these days, Janaszak goes it solo, using just an OMME lift, a specialized vacuum with variable speed control and extension tubes, and a support propped under the whale's chin to get the job done.

Cleaning the whale doesn't just require special equipment, but also a special set of skills: "Strong shoulders and arms are beneficial, as vacuuming for that length of time while mostly holding the vacuum extensions horizontally can be tiring—and the vacuum eventually produces a surprising amount of heat," Janaszak says. "A strong sense of spatial reasoning is also important, particularly when maneuvering the lift around the fins."

It's also important to vacuum gently: The 21,000 pound fiberglass and polyurethane whale is anchored into the ceiling in a single spot, "which is an incredible engineering feat," says Dean Markosian, ‎Director of Project Management at the American Museum of Natural History, "but because we have this huge amount of cantilever sticking out, it can bounce [during cleaning]." The chin support keeps it from bouncing.

When you're vacuuming something that's 94 feet long, you have to have a plan. Janaszak formulates hers around moving the lifter, "which can be time consuming," she says. "Preferably, I'd start on one side of the face and body, move the lift to the tail end of the same side, vacuum the tail end of the opposite side and finish with the face." Using this strategy, she only needs to move the lift four times.

The cleaning takes place over the course of three days. "We could probably do it in maybe two days, but we add a little buffer time just in case," Markosian says. During the cleaning, the bottom level of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life is closed, though visitors still have access to the mezzanine level. "We frequently have events in the Hall of Ocean Life, so trying to block off a few consecutive days can be challenging," Janaszak says. "Other than that, our movers and electricians are all amazing to work with and they set me up with the lift so I can get in and get rolling right away."

The whale is cleaned once a year, and it's clear as Janaszak vacuums just how much dust piles up in that time. Still, she says, "the dust accumulation wasn't too bad. After a year it certainly gets dust enough that it completely changes color when it's vacuumed."

The most difficult part of the whale to clean is its tail. "Even when on the lift it's difficult to see over the edge so I need someone on the mezzanine to let me know when I've missed," she says. "Maneuvering around the fins is also difficult."

The blue whale was installed in 1969. At that time, men had walked on the moon, but hadn't yet studied a living blue whale! The model is based on a female blue whale found in 1925 off the southern tip of South America. Still, it wasn't quite accurate: During a 2003 facelift, sculptors whittled down the model's eye sockets so they didn't bulge, added a navel, and made the tail more tapered, which reflected the latest in blue whale research. They also tweaked the color, which was originally Battleship Gray. You get an idea of what that color might have looked like before Janaszak gets to dusting!

And in case you're wondering: Yeah, it can be a little weird to clean a massive blue whale in front of museum visitors—at least for the first few minutes. "After those initial nerves cool down, I really just settle in to the lift basket and focus on getting the job done as efficiently as possible," Janaszak says. "Other than when I have a decision to make regarding where I should place the lift basket to optimize my reach, I'm on autopilot. I settle into a state of zen when doing a lot of dusting here, actually."

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