‘Once in a Whale’: The conservation treatment of historic cetacea at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Bethany Palumbo


In January 2013, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History closed its doors for 14 months, allowing for the restoration of the original Victorian glass roof. The scaffolding required for this work enabled for the first time easy access to several whale skeletons suspended from the museum roof. This provided the opportunity for a thorough condition assessment and conservation treatment exercise which is the focus of this paper. The project, titled “Once in a Whale,” encompassed several large articulated skeletons as well as a Humpback Whale skull and the huge mandible of a Sperm Whale. The specimens had been on continuous display since the museum opened in 1860 and were in poor condition overall. One hundred fifty years on display had left these specimens with varied types of deterioration: decades of dust and ingrained dirt, acidic sebaceous secretions, and delamination and bleaching caused by continuous exposure to UV and the constant instability of the museum environment.

With only 6 months to complete treatment and with limited funding, the aims were to preserve and stabilize the specimens for display and to improve their scientific accuracy. Treatment was guided by our own research, experimentation, and consultation with other conservators working on similar materials. The specimens were thoroughly cleaned, and consolidated to provide additional strength. Corroded wires were replaced and inappropriate anatomy was corrected where possible. Once completed, the skeletons were transferred to new positions and installed higher than previous to take advantage of the vast roof space and to make them a more prominent feature of the museum displays. The project blog onceinawhale.com was created to capture and convey the conservation process. This outlined the material science and treatment rationale for working on these unique materials, drawing interest from the public and conservation professionals alike.

The whales attracted considerable positive attention, with artistic professionals and enthusiasts inspired to join us in the “whale tank” to illustrate, film and photograph the work being carried out. The skeletons featured in the BBC4 series “Secrets of Bones” (2014) and the project was eventually awarded “Highly Commended” in the Conservation and Restoration category at the 2014 UK Museum and Heritage Awards. Overall the “Once in a Whale” project delivered many beneficial outcomes. Firstly, by highlighting environmental issues and the resulting impact on these specimens, there have been positive institutional changes to collections care. Secondly, our research contributed and strengthened a limited knowledge base regarding the treatment of these types of materials and highlighted areas requiring further research. Finally, the project also served as an exemplar demonstration of how bringing conservation out of a laboratory setting and to new audiences can inspire and create innovative and exciting outreach opportunities.

To contact the author: bethanypalumbo@gmail.com

2018 | Houston | Volume 25