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Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

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

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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

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

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