Saving the Whale – for the next generation of museum visitors

In Part 2 of the tale of the Museum’s iconic Finback Whale, Nigel Larkin, natural history conservator ( writes:

It’s not every day that I get asked to consider taking on a specimen as big as a 70 foot-long articulated Finback Whale skeleton. For instance next week I’ll be cleaning, conserving and remounting a mole skeleton a few inches long, then a porpoise skeleton about 3 feet long. Last week I was conserving, repairing and remounting a five-foot long ichthyosaur skeleton and that was big enough (see: Those are fairly normal weeks for me. But size, as they say, isn’t everything. There were also several other interesting aspects to the Finback Whale project. Not only is this particular whale skeleton apparently the largest example known of its species which is the second largest species of any animal alive on the planet today (second only to the Blue Whale) but it is an iconic landmark in Cambridge city centre and therefore was well loved and was on the regular tourist trail of quirky things you must see when in town (so it is of great local interest). The skeleton is also about 150 years old (therefore it is fragile) and the animal was a celebrity in its day (meaning it is historically important) as it made newspaper headlines around the country when thousands of people visited it when it was washed up on a beach in Sussex in 1865. In fact 40,000 people are estimated to have made the trip to view it on the beach during the first few days of its stranding – so many that a new railway station was specifically built as near to the beached animal as possible. For more information about the animal’s life and death, see:


But not only is this one of the largest skeletons you’ll ever see (bigger than most dinosaurs!), and an icon of the city with historic associations, its current display situation was quite unique as well: for the last 17 years it had been hanging suspended outside Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology, enticing visitors in to see the rest of the collection (comprising about 4 million specimens). This did mean, however, that many generations of pigeons had bred, hatched, lived and died on and within the specimen. Open to the elements, some of the metalwork was rusty but the specimen looked sound, as well as impressively large.

So, when I was asked to assess the specimen’s condition and to provide some ideas as to how it might be safely dismantled, cleaned and temporarily stored for the duration of the current refurbishment project before re-mounting in the new foyer, was I daunted? Well, no. I love a challenge. And it wasn’t going to be a particularly novel task. It’s fair to say that I don’t normally have to remove quite such large amounts of bird droppings from the skeletons I usually work on, but the processes required for the project as a whole would just be scaled-up versions of many other projects I had undertaken over the years. In fact it would be very similar to a project I had organised in 2009, when responsible for excavating and lifting a fragile 6,000 year old whale skeleton almost identical in size but buried in sandy sediments in Abu Dhabi (you can read about that expedition here: Many of the techniques used in that project would clearly come in useful.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the state of the bones, and assess their supporting metalwork and all the baleen hanging from the skull (the baleen is the keratinous material in the mouth that the animal used to filter-feed when alive).Larkinblog2They had to be studied and their status recorded in some detail as the condition of all of these elements would determine exactly how I would tackle the project. This enabled me to devise an appropriate plan of action for cleaning the bones, the baleen and the metalwork, and to make a written and photographic record of every element (as we will have to put it all back together again in a few years!). I also had to plan how to label and dismantle it all and pack it away for storage for a few years. Access to the bones was going to be a problem, as many of them were a couple of metres or more in the air, and the pigeon droppings were actually quite a significant biohazard risk. But appropriate scaffolding and scaffolding towers could be sourced and we devised risk assessments for every possible activity and took appropriate precautions. One of the main elements of the assessment phase was to figure out exactly what tools and materials we would need and in what quantities. I also had to work out how long it would all take and ultimately how much it would probably cost so that funding could be allocated appropriately.


Work started in September 2013. After recording exactly how the skeleton was put together on the supporting metalwork, every single bone was cleaned very carefully before being removed, using brushes and a vacuum cleaner to remove as much dirt and pigeon faeces as possible (whilst wearing disposable gloves, dust masks and goggles. It was photographed and labelled with its individual bone number and its orientation before being removed from the metalwork. All the metalwork was photographed and labelled as well. Only then was the bone very carefully removed and the next stage of cleaning undertaken. The bones were swabbed with Synperonic A7 (a special detergent used in museums) diluted with water, one small area at a time, and patted dry with lint-free paper towels.  Then to clean the detergent off this small area would be swabbed with water, dried, then swabbed with water and dried again. All metalwork was removed and cleaned with a spinning wire brush, then painted with ‘direct to rust’ metal paint.


Larkinblog5The bones were packed way in standard museum ‘archival media’ (inert storage products that last for decades and don’t damage the specimens by giving off harmful chemicals) such as acid-free tissue paper and Plastazote foam. We had to build bespoke wooden crates for the baleen to be stored in and make large shelving units for the largest bones to be stored on (the ribs alone are about 6 feet long).

In the end we undertook the whole project just within the time I judged it might take (about 60 person days) and well within budget (I’m not going to tell you). And not a single item was damaged in the process, despite the bones being very fragile, large and awkward, despite a single element of the metal supporting structure weighing about 170 kilos (we used pulleys to lower it) and despite having to move the skull and lower jaw which weighed a ton and half. This latter task was even more difficult than you might initially think: the 5 metre-long skull and lower jaw (like all the bones) were hanging from the ceiling and we had to transfer the weight carefully, slowly and evenly so that it was supported from below instead, yet the skull was extremely brittle as well as astonishingly heavy. We built a rigid, strong, supportive and protective metal cage around it so that we could manoeuvre it from its original position and into a nearby purpose-built shed with a crane.


 Matt Lowe, the Museum’s very efficient Collections Manager, has written a blog of how the project went from his perspective. You can read it here:

None of this could have been achieved safely or within time or budget without help from the multi-talented Phil Rye, the ever-resourceful Matt Lowe and a bunch of brilliant and amazingly stoical volunteers, particularly Ilanith Pongolini.Cleaning and packing up this iconic specimen was just the start of a truly gargantuan project. This might be a particularly large and problematic individual skeleton, but it is just one of many museum objects with special needs: another 4 million specimens will be assessed, cleaned, recorded and packed over the next year, ready to be moved in to their new stores (you can see some examples below). A small army of staff and volunteers are beavering away behind the scenes every day. The museum may be closed for a couple of years but it is a hive of activity. To read more about the project or watch videos, select from the following:

The Zoology Museum project in the news:

Working on other whale skeletons in the Zoology Museum:

Something else a little awkward to clean and pack: A stuffed orang-utan sitting in a fragile nest of twigs leaves:


Finback Whale, Balaenoptera physalus


In Part 1 of the tale of the Museum’s iconic Finback Whale, Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates, writes of his experiences installing this enormous skeleton above the Museum’s entrance:

The history of what has come to be known as ‘The Cambridge Whale’ has been dealt with in detail in a number of articles over recent years, and there is a number of web sites that catalogue various aspects of its history and biology. In this short account I give a small personal perspective of a period when the whale was, inevitably, an obsession for me (and we all know what happened to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab).

As I write, the whale is not visible. Now, it takes quite an effort to hide such an object, and it is a tribute to the efforts of the current Collections Manager, Matt Lowe, and the conservator, Nigel Larkin, who was specially commissioned for the task, that it has been dismantled and put into storage on site, to await its (doubtless triumphant) redisplay in a new position in 2016.

As a brief recap for those new to the saga, the whale came ashore dead at Pevensey, in East Sussex, in November 1865. After a period of viewing, both in situ and on tour, the prepared skeleton was bought for the University Museum of Zoology by public subscription. The supporting iron framework was made especially in the University workshops (well, surprisingly, you can’t buy these things off the shelf) and was used to display the skeleton in the old University Museum of Zoology.

A Photos Old Museum - Museum with Clark bust

The old Museum was a wooden building (that by the time of its demolition in 1965 had developed some heroic leaks) and the whale was mounted on pillars that stood on the floor of the Museum. Consequently, one of the major problems to be solved in the remounting was that its new home allowed only for hanging from above. The New Museum was finished in 1970, but it was not until 1997 that the skeleton was revealed again to visitors. It rapidly became a familiar Cambridge landmark, suspended over the glazed entrance foyer to the New Museum.

That straightforward and unemotional description of events hides, of course, a very great deal of the story. At various times the movement,  transport, cleaning and conservation of the skeleton has involved a large cast of people. On an early, foggy, morning for example, when the crane we had hired lifted the skull as far as it could, it took a team of 20 only partly convinced recruits from the Department of Zoology bodily to lift the skull and carry it up steps to close to its final position for reassembly. This was after Ann Charlton, on the Museum staff, had cleaned the skull (at times using a toothbrush to cover what must have seemed like acres of bone). But the reassembly mostly fell to three of us: Ray Symonds, Michael (‘Mick’) Ashby, and myself. We are now, all three, retired. Ray and Mick brought high levels of all sorts of skills to the job, and I brought – well, a lot of optimism.

Things did not always go smoothly. At one point, when the completed skeleton was hanging from a series of nylon ropes, there was a major fire on the floor above. I came screaming in fully expecting that the ropes would have melted in the heat, and the shattered skeleton would be waiting for me on the bricks below. The fire brigade had, however, very sensibly damped down the ropes and the skeleton, so no damage had been done. The firemen were very amused at my concerns that the skeleton had got so wet: ‘but it’s a whale’, they reasoned, ‘it must be used to it’.

Then there was the matter of the chain hoists, for example. These were crucial to the rehang, because they enabled us to transfer the skeleton from those nylon ropes to the steel cables, made one by one, precisely to size, by the ever obliging Mackays (who contributed other elements of metal work for the project). The trouble was that chain hoists for hire were in rather short supply locally. Eventually we had just one left to obtain and it was found in a local scrap yard that was guarded by two large dogs who had regarded the heaped chains as something to aim at. It was that or nothing, so pre-preparation involved some liberal use of disinfectants before the hoist could be safely deployed. We agreed that these little things were sent to try us.

We got through largely without injury. The ‘largely’ there does, however, hide a few Minor Incidents. The reassembly was carried out behind a boarding screen (this was in part so that I was not visible looking pathetically at the work thus far, and all too obviously wondering how on earth we were going to do the next bit). Two large doors had been made for access (like everything else to do with the project, they just had to be large). When the moment came to pull up the central steel beam we used a rope and block and tackle that had been in the Museum since around the time of Nelson: it broke. The three of us took off with the broken end and burst backwards through the wooden door like cowboys in a bar room brawl. Words were said about how you couldn’t rely on things to last these days.

It really was blood, sweat and tears. Mostly the first two, at least in public. In fact there was a supremely emotional moment for me. On the day that all the hoarding came down and the completed skeleton was exposed to view for the first time in so many years, I was walking off the site to go home – exhausted, but very pleased and happy. As I came out through the narrow archway onto Downing Street, I looked back under the arch – and there it was! Even more satisfying was the elderly gentleman with two shopping bags coming down the street on the opposite side of the road. He must have done the trip a thousand times. As he drew level with the archway he glanced sideways and back. And then he did a double take, put the bags down on the pavement and stared. Yes, I thought: we’ve done it.

Argus Pheasant Feathers

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2014

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2014

Roz Wade, Education and Outreach Officer, writes:

In a display case surrounded by the beautiful, the colourful and the peculiar of the bird world, mounted in a frame is a selection of feathers from a male Argus Pheasant (Argusianus argus). Unlike the shimmering green-blue of a Peacock’s tail, the beauty of the Argus Pheasant is a little more subtle. A dappled pattern of browns and beiges with highlights of off white and, on the larger feathers, a series of large spots perfectly shaded to appear three dimensional. These feathers are not just any Argus Pheasant feathers, but are from the feather collection of one Charles Darwin.

Darwin greatly admired the plumage of the male Argus Pheasant, as his description in his book “The Descent of Man” shows:

“The immensely developed secondary wing-feathers, which are confined to the male, are ornamented with a row of from twenty to twenty-three ocelli, each above an inch in diameter. The feathers are also elegantly marked with oblique dark stripes and rows of spots, like those on the skin of a tiger and leopard combined. The ocelli are so beautifully shaded that, as the Duke of Argyll remarks, they stand out like a ball lying loosely within a socket.”

These markings he described as more striking in the pose taken by the male while displaying to the female, where the feathers form a “grand, semi-circular upright fan”. These descriptions form evidence for Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection – the preference of females for mates with particular characteristics like the elaborate wing feathers and displays of the Argus Pheasant, and so driving the evolution of these traits (referred to as secondary sexual characteristics). Although you could be forgiven watching a video of a male Argus Pheasant like this one (from

Argus Pheasant video

and thinking that it just makes the male look like a bit of a show off and the female is not at all impressed!

These feathers from Darwin’s feather collection are just one of the many treasures held by the Museum. Seeing something that Darwin saw, and reading his observations brings his work so much closer, a real proximity with the great man himself despite the many years between us. Spending time with specimens like these make coming into work at the Museum so exciting, and we want to share that with as many people as we can!

The Museum is going through a major redevelopment, but we need your help. Check out our website:

for information about our plans for the Museum. If you would like to help us to make it possible for more people to explore the wonders of the animal kingdom and experience a connection with great scientists from the past and today, please go to the University’s online giving page:

Any donation, however small, will help us to care for our fabulous collections, and display and interpret them in exciting new ways for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

Thank you, and we hope to welcome you to a wonderful new Museum in 2016!