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.

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