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The 6-ton Blue whale model at London’s Natural History Museum

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As close as you can get to the NHM Blue whale model. Such a thing of great beauty. Photo by Darren Naish.

A series of meetings meant that I found myself in London’s Natural History Museum yesterday, and with my friends and Tet Zoo supporters Dan and Felix Bridel (great t-shirt, Felix) I spent a while gawping at the always fascinating life-sized Blue whale Balaenoptera musculus model that hangs in the Mammal Hall. The Mammal Hall is infinitely better than the dark and horribly designed Dinosaur Gallery, by the way – do yourself a favour and prioritise it when you visit. Anyway, inspired by the discussion I had with Dan and Felix, it seemed like a good time to recycle the following text: it has previously featured on both versions 1 and 2 of Tet Zoo, but here it is again, with a few updates and additional comments.

Skeleton of the 1891 Wexford Bay Blue whale, as displayed today at the Natural History Museum, London. Photo by Darren Naish.

Late in the 1920s, plans to replace the old whale hall of the British Museum (Natural History) were fulfilled. Thanks to the new, steel-girdled hall, the Blue whale skeleton – by now kept in storage for 42 years due to lack of space – could finally be put on display. This skeleton belonged to a 25 m animal that had stranded at Wexford Bay, SE Ireland, in 1891. It – as in, the skeleton alone – weighs over 10 tons. But some people at the museum wanted more, and in 1937 taxidermist Percy Stammwitz (1881-1954) made the bold suggestion that a life-sized model of a Blue whale could be constructed for display alongside the skeleton. Later that year Stammwitz and his son, Stuart, began work on the project, their technical advisor being cetologist Francis C. Fraser (1903-1978).

Scaling up from a clay model, a wooden frame was constructed, and this was then covered in wire mesh and plaster. A trapdoor on the stomach was constructed for (I presume) internal maintenance, though apparently the workmen would sneak inside the model for secret smoking. On several occasions I’ve heard rumours that a time capsule was left inside this trapdoor before it was sealed: Stearn (1981) made no mention of this specifically, but did write that a telephone directory and some coins were left inside (p. 132). The completed model weighed between 6 and 7 tons and, when the time came for the whale to be painted, Stammwitz and Fraser disagreed, eventually choosing bluish steel-grey. Completed in December 1938, it was the largest whale model ever made though larger models, constructed from the same design templates, have since been produced by several American museums.

Closeup on the whale's eye. Photo by Darren Naish.

The model is so big that it's never really possible to get the whole thing in shot. Here, we see the right pectoral fin, and surrounding skeletons and other cetacean models. Photo by Darren Naish.

Thanks – mostly – to aerial photography, most of us are now familiar with the true body shape of live Blue whales and other rorquals. Gordon Williamson (1972) was among the first to argue that traditional ‘baggy-throat’ reconstructions failed to show the true body shape of these animals: he approached live, harpooned whales underwater and photographed them as best he could. They are shockingly gracile and incredibly long-bodied, with a shape that (when seen in dorsal view) has been likened to that of a champagne flute. At least some people had known this for a while: Roy Chapman Andrews, for example, wrote in 1916 of the Fin whale’s “slender body … built like a racing yacht”. Basing their reconstructions on beached carcasses, or on rorquals killed by whaling vessels, artists and scientists had, however, previously thought that rorquals were stouter, with fat bellies and flabby throats, and rorquals were still being depicted this way as recently as the 1960s. In view of this, the comparatively slender NHM Blue whale is looking pretty good – I’ve heard people say that its tailstock is deeper and more laterally compressed than is in the case in live animals, and also that its throat is too heavy-looking but, overall, it’s remarkably good-looking for a model made during the late 1930s. [Photo below by Sotakeit.]

Photos that show the whole of the model are few are far between. This image is by Sotakeit; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence. Subject to disclaimers.

Incidentally, I was surprised to see that people are still in the bizarre and inane habit of throwing money onto the whale’s tail. Over the years, a series of signs have politely discouraged this behaviour, seemingly to little avail. What sort of person looks at the tail of a model whale and thinks “Hmm, I really must throw some coinage onto that!”.  Weird. Or is there some special whale-tail cult or indigenous belief system that I don’t know about?

Money on the whale's tail. Because what else would you do with coins and pennies but throw them there? Photo by Darren Naish.

For (hopefully functional) links to all of the many Tet Zoo cetacean articles, see…

Refs – -

Stearn, W. T. 1981. The Natural History Museum at South Kensington. Heinemann, London.

Williamson, G. R. 1972. The true body shape of rorqual whales. Journal of Zoology, 167, 277-286

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Andreas Johansson 8:31 am 08/8/2014

    At the Natural History Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, they’ve got an actual stuffed blue whale, albeit a juvenile of a “mere” 16 meters. The head can be swung open and there used to be a mini-café inside! Just beside are the mandibles of an adult, to drive home the relative smallness of the stuffed one.

    No-one’s throwing any coins on it, AFAIK.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Dartian 9:20 am 08/8/2014

    Darren:
    overall, it’s remarkably good-looking for a model made during the late 1930s

    I agree; it’s simply stunning, especially when seen in close-up. If anything, it’s almost too impressive – it takes the attention away from all the other cetacean and other mammal specimens that are surrounding it. ;)

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  3. 3. JoseD 11:07 am 08/8/2014

    “The Mammal Hall is infinitely better than the dark and horribly designed Dinosaur Gallery, by the way – do yourself a favour and prioritise it when you visit.”

    I’ve heard similar things elsewhere. If their Dinosaur Gallery’s really that bad, wouldn’t there be plans to renovate it?

    Link to this
  4. 4. BattleMetalChris 11:54 am 08/8/2014

    Why do people throw coins onto the whale? Because it’s a ‘wishing whale’ of course.. ;-)

    Link to this
  5. 5. Halbred 12:27 pm 08/8/2014

    The Dinosaur Gallery really is spectacularly horrible, considering. I recall the best-looking piece is a wall-mount of Baryonyx, and that’s only because it’s somewhat well-lit by various lamps. But most of the dinosaur hall is incredibly dark, and the fauna displayed are completely random–most are from North America. I was far more impressed with Bristol’s smaller-but-better-designed natural history museum (the dinosaur part, anyway)–thanks largely to the beautiful Scelidosaurus fossil that was there.

    That said, Britain’s Natural History Museum is, overall, top-notch and I spent most of the day there when my wife and I were there for SVP in…2009?

    Link to this
  6. 6. Zoovolunteer 1:53 pm 08/8/2014

    Is there any truth in the rumour that a still was concealed inside it during WW11?

    Link to this
  7. 7. HildyJ 2:06 pm 08/8/2014

    Just to give some credit to those of us across the pond, the Smithsonian displayed a 78′ blue whale at the St. Louis Worlds Fair of 1904 made from a whole cast of a whale. It was later displayed at the museum until the 60′s when it was replaced by a new model. During the latest renovation, it was replaced by a model of a living right whale (Phoenix, who was born in 1987 and is tracked by the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Project).

    http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/profiles/whales_si.html

    Link to this
  8. 8. Heteromeles 6:08 pm 08/8/2014

    Is there any truth to the rumor that the remains from the Berwyn Mountain Incident are hidden in the model?

    Link to this
  9. 9. Boesse 6:46 pm 08/8/2014

    That paper by Williamson is a bit bizarre – informative, but with some of the cruelest methods ever employed in a paper on extant baleen whales. For the uninitiated, Williamson was on board a Japanese whaling ship which fired harpoons through the caudal peduncle of a couple different Balaenoptera individuals (can’t remember what species… B. borealis?). He remarked upon how tightly the ventral throat pouch was held against the body and how thin and sleek the body form was in general. Ironically, he also explained that previous attempts to scuba dive with Balaenoptera had failed because they were so fast.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Boesse 6:48 pm 08/8/2014

    Oh crap, forgot a few details: they left the harpooned whales tethered for a short while so that a camera-armed scuba diver (williamson himself, I’m guessing) could swim around and take photogoraphs of the whale. He implied that the whale was killed after the study (as to be expected after such harm was inflicted).

    Link to this
  11. 11. Heteromeles 12:23 am 08/9/2014

    Just checking that I didn’t screw up the citation from comment 8. If so, my apologies. I don’t want anyone to think that just because I’m nuts, I’ve got PBG.

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  12. 12. Allen Hazen 12:38 am 08/9/2014

    78 feet rings a bell. The AMNH in New York currently has a 90+ foot blue whale model — I’m not sure whether it was made from the same holds as the Smithsonian’s “1963 whale,” but it looks similar and is in a similar pose — but for many years before had had a plaster (papier maché?) model which I think I remember as being 78 feet long. The AMNH’s “old” whale — one of my favorite exhibits from childhood visits to the museum in the 1950s — was of the obsolete “rotund” form. My recollection was that it was modelled from a stranded specimen. … I assume that post-mortem loss of muscle tone allows the throat to sag, accounting for the prevalence of the rotund idea before the age of underwater photography of living specimens?

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  13. 13. naishd 4:30 am 08/9/2014

    Bobby (comments # 9 and 10): well, I’m not sure I’d say that Williamson’s paper is “bizarre”.. rather, the research he did was absolutely unethical, and most quality journals today (who have statements of ethics in their small print) would not accept his manuscript. I’ve thought about mentioning this when citing his paper, but have opted to avoid it as it would involve a lengthy tangent – it’s important to note just how much research on whales has been performed at flensing stations and on factory ships (I don’t mean modern Japanese ‘research’, but anatomical and physiological studies published by European and American cetologists). However, it’s definitely something we should flag up.

    Incidentally, I’ve recently heard a rumour that the NHM Blue whale model housed a secret distillery during WWII! More details as I get them…

    Link to this
  14. 14. naishd 4:42 am 08/9/2014

    Heteromeles (comment # 8): ok, so apparently there’s some claim that evidence pertaining to a British UFO crash is secreted inside the whale model? Err… really? That’s a new one on me. As it happens, I sort of know Andy Roberts (the primary modern investigation of the Berwyn Mountain incident) and went to his talk on the subject a few years ago. The primary conclusion was that all the claims associated with this case proved false or blown out of all proportion by UFologists. I will ask if he’s ever heard of this alleged link with the whale…

    Link to this
  15. 15. naishd 5:35 am 08/9/2014

    I’ve also just learnt of a claim that a mattress was once found inside the whale. Er. I doubt this is true.

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  16. 16. ChrisManias 9:03 am 08/9/2014

    (Allen Hazen #12) There’s a quite densely written but pretty informative article on the old AMNH whale in a recent edition of Isis (which was indeed made of papier‐mâché on a wood & iron skeleton).

    It also has a bit about the reaction of whale reconstructors in London and Germany – http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/653096 (alas! paywalled)

    Link to this
  17. 17. Heteromeles 12:05 pm 08/9/2014

    Actually, no, I used the Berwyn Mountain case because there was reportedly no evidence at all, just to see what happened next. It’s almost as ridiculous as putting a still inside. Doesn’t distilling involve heating the alcohol? Inside a model made of what again? With vents located where for the fumes? With how many members of the public watching fumes coming out that vent? I can almost imagine some idiot using it as a stash for fermenting hooch, but not as cover for a still.

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  18. 18. naishd 12:16 pm 08/9/2014

    Oh, sorry for misunderstanding!!

    Link to this
  19. 19. Heteromeles 3:33 pm 08/9/2014

    De nada.

    Link to this
  20. 20. JoseD 3:43 pm 08/9/2014

    Just making sure my question isn’t forgotten about (See Comment #3)?

    Link to this
  21. 21. DavidMarjanovic 5:59 pm 08/9/2014

    What sort of person looks at the tail of a model whale and thinks “Hmm, I really must throw some coinage onto that!”. Weird. Or is there some special whale-tail cult or indigenous belief system that I don’t know about?

    Judging from the photo, the tail fin looks like a pool in colour and size. Apparently some people throw money faster than they can recognize what they’re even looking at. o_O

    (Throwing money into water is apparently said to bring good luck, and is a mind-blowingly widespread practice. ~:-| )

    If their Dinosaur Gallery’s really that bad, wouldn’t there be plans to renovate it?

    Plans and what money?

    That said, Britain’s Natural History Museum is, overall, top-notch and I spent most of the day there when my wife and I were there for SVP in…2009?

    SVP was in Bristol in 2009; that was the first time it was outside North America – next time is this November in Berlin.

    Link to this
  22. 22. DavidMarjanovic 6:01 pm 08/9/2014

    Forgot:

    I don’t mean modern Japanese ‘research’

    Apparently, a small part of that is actually research and has led to the recognition of Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai).

    Link to this
  23. 23. naishd 7:06 pm 08/9/2014

    Re: comment 22.. well, I’m sure you’ve heard how little of Japanese ‘whaling research’ actually translates to real, published research.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Heteromeles 7:35 pm 08/9/2014

    @23: What’s the problem with the Japanese whale research community, an insufficiently large dataset to test their theories? (/sarcasm).

    Incidentally, I heard back in around 1995 that US researchers working with whale meat purchased in Japan* had noticed at least one unidentified rorqual species being marketed. Was that Omura’s whale, or some other species? Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the whale researcher who was doing the DNA research, but he was American, not Japanese, and he was involved with seeing whether the Japanese industry was catching what it said it was catching, or something else.

    *they bought whale meat in grocery markets, extracted the DNA and PCR’ed it in a purpose-sterilized hotel room in Japan, and then took the PCR products back to the US so that they wouldn’t violate CITES or any other law0).

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  25. 25. SRPlant 12:55 pm 08/10/2014

    “Windows on Nature” (a very pleasing book about the dioramas of the AMNH) claims that when the 1969 model of the Blue whale was restored in 2003 “… using recent underwater photographs as reference, the model was painted the rich blue of the living whale. Finally, museum restorers realized the original model was missing a very basic feature of a placental mammal – a naval! This was quickly remedied.”
    Windows on Nature also reports that “the artificial rock structure (in the Puma diorama) is quite spacious inside. In its early days it is said to have been used as a secret romantic rendezvous site for amorous museum staff members.” I think now’s the time to start a rumour that John Cougar Mellencamp was conceived there.

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  26. 26. Christopher Taylor 8:14 pm 08/10/2014

    @Heteromeles (24): You’re thinking of Scott Baker, who was a lecturer of mine at Auckland University back in the past millenium.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Allen Hazen 9:32 pm 08/10/2014

    Chris Manias (#16)–
    Thanks for the reference! The journal, “Isis,” is covered by JSTOR (2010 volume in something called JSTOR current scholarship), so those with access to university libraries can see the article without actually paying…

    The prose does have some tedious sociology-of-science stuff (papier maché over an armature of history, so to speak), but the history underneath it is interesting. The AMNH’s old whale (broken up in the 1960s when the current dramatically arched fiberglass whale was commissioned) was built in 1907 (by a team including the young Roy Chapman Andrews, whose later popular books introduced many children of my generation to dinosaurs and palaeontology). It’s not a cast, but sculpted: papier maché over an iron and wood structure (there are photos in the article illustrating the construction: basic framework of angle iron, covered by a surface of thin wood, with the papier maché over that giving the fine details like the throat grooves), scaled up from an earlier 1/12 scale model. Exact length… 76 feet is quoted somewhere, the museum’s publicity talked about a 79 foot model, and Andrews himself said it was a model of a 78 foot whale. (My guess is that different choices of what to measure could account for the discrepancies: I suspect, for instance, that the tips of the flukes are farther aft than the tip of the tail stock…)

    Interestingly, it seems to be the same whale as the (old) Smithsonian whale: the measurements on which the AMNH model was based seem to be of the same specimen that the Smithsonian had cast, and one of the AMNH team had photographed the Smithsonian’s cast to help guide the model builders.

    True (author of “Whalebone Whales of the North Atlantic,” the richly illustrated monograph that played a part in inspiring both the Smithsonian and the AMNH) had noted that the base colour of a Blue Whale was, in fact, BLUE, as the newer (1960s) AMNH and Smithsonian whales showed. My childhood recollection of the old AMNH whale, though, was that it was more a gray-black: I don’t recall any bluishness to its appearance. (Whether this was a judgment call by the AMNH people in 1907 or the result of paint losing its colour in the near half century before I first saw it I don’t know.) The alternate name of the species, Sulfur Bottom, supposedly reflects algae that grow on the skin of at least some specimens: again, I don’t call any perceptible yellowishness on the underside (it was hung from the ceiling of the third floor — where “Gallery 3,” one of the AMNH halls for temporary exhibits, is now — and you could get a side view walking around it on the third floor, but it was in a “well” and you could also walk under it on the second floor, where the African anthropology hall is now).

    Link to this
  28. 28. Boesse 2:19 am 08/11/2014

    To make some clarification: I’ve heard through mutual colleagues that Dr. Yamada and research done in his lab is entirely based on stranded cetaceans. The holotype skeleton of Balaenoptera omurai is a stranded specimen; the paratypes were collected by the whaling program back in the 1970′s (which is the specimen shown in the photograph in Wada et al. 2003, ready for flensing). Drs. Oishi and Yamada (second and third authors on the paper) are both morphologists working at museums (the former is actually a paleontologist). Other papers since the publication of B. omurai by Dr. Yamada have relied entirely upon osteo specimens of stranded individuals.

    Some interesting new work has been done by Gen Nakamura – but unfortunately with the way they do things on “scientific” whaling vessels, measurements may be taken from the skeleton after quick flensing before all of the skeleton is thrown overboard. I’ve heard from other paleocetologists that the osteo collections developed from this program is disappointingly small.

    What does that say for reproducibility? Certainly, to reproduce the data from the experiment, since all of the objects for which measurements were recorded are now peacefully resting in Davy Jone’s Locker, you would have to go out and kill another 600-700 minke whales. That is admittedly not very desirable from an ethical perspective.

    I think it’s fair to call the Williamson paper bizarre. I mean, it’s definitely informative (but probably more unethical than informative) but shooting harpoons into an animal to keep it still so you can describe it’s external morphology in better detail? If that’s not a bizarre piece of cetological research than I don’t know what is. To be precise, I find it bizarre that such cruel methods were thought to justify addressing such a comparatively inconsequential question.

    Link to this
  29. 29. naishd 4:09 am 08/11/2014

    Boesse (comment # 28): fair enough. Ok, so Williamson’s paper is bizarre and unethical.

    Link to this
  30. 30. SeanMcCabe 9:57 am 08/11/2014

    So did that idea of restricting Cetacea to the crown group ever catch on? I’ve always hated crown group definitions.

    Link to this
  31. 31. WarrenJB 12:20 am 08/12/2014

    “The Mammal Hall is infinitely better than the dark and horribly designed Dinosaur Gallery, by the way – do yourself a favour and prioritise it when you visit.”

    I’ve visited the NHM twice, starting a couple of years ago. First time, I was baffled by the dimly-lit crooked route and one-way crush, but at least I got to see some famous fossils in person. Second time was a bank holiday: I looked at the size of the queue of families and thought ‘no’.

    The rest of the NHM is so much more airy, relaxed and welcoming, it’s like an entirely different museum. The mammal hall is excellent but I have to say I’m fond of the layout of the marine reptile gallery too. Even with all those ichthyosaurs way beyond head height and close peering distance.

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  32. 32. Yodelling Cyclist 9:03 am 08/12/2014

    @Sean McCabe: Not being a biologist at all in any sense, I may well have misunderstood, but wouldn’t that make Ceatcea non-monophyletic? We would be missing squalondontids as there is a pontoporid and I think some mysticetes given that there is in fact an extant cetothere.

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  33. 33. DavidMarjanovic 9:12 am 08/12/2014

    well, I’m sure you’ve heard how little of Japanese ‘whaling research’ actually translates to real, published research.

    Of course. I commented for the sake of completeness…

    I’ve heard through mutual colleagues that Dr. Yamada and research done in his lab is entirely based on stranded cetaceans. The holotype skeleton of Balaenoptera omurai is a stranded specimen; the paratypes were collected by the whaling program back in the 1970′s (which is the specimen shown in the photograph in Wada et al. 2003, ready for flensing).

    …I just happened to be completely wrong.

    The journal, “Isis,” is covered by JSTOR (2010 volume in something called JSTOR current scholarship), so those with access to university libraries can see the article without actually paying…

    JSTOR is expensive enough that not all universities and similar institutions have access to it.

    Link to this
  34. 34. Heteromeles 12:36 pm 08/12/2014

    Apropos of nothing, I should point out that, when I was getting my PhD, we grad students created a list of “thesis topics from hell” as a running gag and bit of stress relief. These included such easy topics as “why do cycads grow so slowly?” but the first entry on the list was “blue whale reproductive physiology.” Personally, I think it would make a great lab-based doctoral dissertation, don’t you?

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  35. 35. vdinets 3:58 am 08/14/2014

    Speaking of unethical, I’ve heard of a famous Soviet nature photographer who photographed otters and other mustelids by nailing them to logs by the tail. My source refused to name the photographer, but mentioned that he never bothered to make a secret of his methods.

    Link to this

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