Resurrecting a blue whale in the halls of the Natural History Museum, UK
In 1891, a local fisherman spotted an enormous blue whale stranded on a beach in Wexford, Ireland. After two days of watching it struggling in the shallows, the fisherman put the whale out of its misery, after which he sold the carcass for £111, a prized sum. In 1932, the Natural British Museum bought the whale skeleton and displayed it the Mammal Hall, where it remained, suspended in space and time, for decades.
In 2017, the museum announced it was moving the whale to form the main exhibit creating an awesome sight for visitors entering the front door. The museum wants the whale, named Hope, to act “as a symbol of humanity’s power to shape a sustainable future”.
CAN, an RSK company, worked diligently in the Hintze Hall while curators, conservation teams and engineers restored the majestic creature in an off-site warehouse. The plan was for the skeleton and its armature to be suspended from cables anchored to the museum’s roof trusses and presented in a diving motion as if gulping millions of krill. Before beginning the vital work, CAN engineers completed a dimensional survey of Hintze Hall’s roof trusses. Owing to the specialist-access company’s vast industry experience, the rigging and access work was straightforward. However, the challenge lay in potentially overloading the roof tresses while lifting the 4.5-tonne skeleton into place.
To mitigate the risk, CAN technicians used mechanical, hand-operated Tirfor winches to make minute adjustments at each of the 10 individually manned, roof-truss lifting locations. The armature anchor points were designed to swivel, enabling the orientation of the skeleton to be adjusted without creating a spike in the loading of an individual roof truss. Project engineers incorporated load cells in each of the lifting rigs that communicated with a control station via Wi-Fi, thereby enabling the CAN lift supervisor to monitor the operation continuously.
After raising, fixing and positioning Hope in the desired orientation, CAN installed permanent cables. “Hope is the only blue whale skeleton in the world to be hung in the diving lunge feeding position,” said Lorraine Cornish, the museum’s head of conservation. “Suspending such a large, complex and historical specimen from a Victorian ceiling was always going to be challenging, but we were determined to show her in as lifelike a position as possible; we are thrilled that the result is truly spectacular.”