False Hope

“Most whale photos you see show whales in this beautiful blue water – it’s almost like space.”
– Brian Skerry, Wildlife Photographer

The Natural History Museum (London, UK) originates from 1753 when Sir Hans Sloane generously donated his 71.000 item collection to the British Parliament. With an ever growing collection of artefacts the museum expanded under Sir Richard Owen* and Alfred Waterhouse designed the current building that opened on 18 April 1881. Today the Natural History Museum welcome more than five million visitors annually who can free of charge admire a vast range of specimens from a 80 million item collection (botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology).

The NHM (Natural History Museum) is since long established as a world-renowned centre of research with collections of great historical as well as scientific value, recognised as the pre-eminent centre of natural history and research of related fields in the world. Some specimens were collected by Charles Darwin himself, and the museum also has Sir Richard Owen’s original collection (manuscripts, letters, professional correspondence and 3.500 drawings with 110 type specimens).

Dippy the Diplodocus was taken down in 2017 from the Natural History Museum and replaced by the 83 foot long ‘Hope’ real blue whale skeleton. Dippy the dinosaur will now go on an extensive UK tour.

The NMH is well reputed for its dinosaur cg/wiki/Diplodocus”>Diplodocus Carnegiifeet long (32m) ‘Dippy’ – a plaster rDiplodocus Carnegiieplica* of the fossilised bones of a ‘ uncovered in Wyoming in 1898. Dippy has been on display since May 1905 and was prominently placed in the main exhibition hall (Hintze Hall) since 1979 until the many times altered replica was replaced in July (2017) with a real skeleton of a Blue Whale optimistically named ‘Hope‘.

“Because ultimately she’s a scientific specimen and we’re not going to combine the parts of more than one animal into one single specimen because if records are lost we can take samples perhaps from different parts of the skeleton and get different DNA results and people would be confused…” (interview)
– Richard Sabin, Principal Curator, National History Museum

Blue whales were first observed and described by Scottish Geographer Royal Sir Robert Sibbald, who examined a stranded male in the Firth of Forth in 1692. In 1758, Carolus Linneus changed the initial name of blue whales from ‘Sibbald’s Rorqual‘ to Balaenoptra musculus. Due to their size, speed and power –  Blue Whales were rarely pursued by early whalers who instead targeted Sperm and Right whales.

The first whaler to hunt the ginormous (50-200 tons) Blue Whale was the Norwegian shipping magnate and philanthropist Svend Foyn in 1864 who used specifically designed harpoons for catching the large whales. Blue whales were thereafter hunted off the coast of Finnmark (Norway), Iceland (1883), the Faroe Islands (1894), Newfoundland (1898) and Spitsbergen (1903).

In an early luck of events, the Natural History Museum of London got hold of their big Blue Whale currently exposed as early as 1892 when Wexford business man William Armstrong sold the museum the remains of the whale he acquired for 111£ from its captor – Ned Wickham of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Wickham had spotted a female Blue whale live-stranded on a sandbank close to Wexford Harbour (Ireland) on March 25th 1891. Approaching close to the huge carcass the day after, Ned stuck his knife into the whale and supplied the coup de grace. The whale was an 82 feet long (25m) adult female Northern Blue whale (the whale was first wrongly identified as a Sperm whale).

Armstrong had the whale carcass salvaged before delivery to the Natural History Museum and whale’s oil was collected in 14 drums of 45 gallons (630 gallons in total), the baleen (the mouth filter of baleen whales) was used to make corsets and the lean meat was sold off as pet food. The whale bones were then cleansed, whitened and brought to he Natural History Museum for display, but due to size and weight (estimated to be over 10 tons at the time) did not allow the museum to exhibit the Wexford whale just yet. The whale skeleton was kept in storage for over 40 years until the museum opened its new Whale Hall in 1938 where it was mounted alongside a with a 93 foot live replica of a Blue whale. Both were the first blue whales to be put on display anywhere in the world.

The Wexford ‘Rosslare’ whale (now ‘Hope’) depicted as found on 25 March 1891

The Wexford Blue Whale being mounted in British Museum’s Whale Hall in the 1930s – It is now 83 feet long (initially 82ft) and has the largest jaw-bone ever made by ‘nature’.

A life-size model of the Wexford Blue Whale under construction by Percy and Stuart Stammwitz, here 93 feet long, built with light-weight technology used in first-world-war planes.

The life-size model today – still a magnet for children and adults alike.

The Wexford Blue Whale was recently baptised ‘Hope’ for its new installation as the centrepiece for the Natural History Museum. Now ‘diving’ down on visitors from it’s newly suspended position, the 221 bones that according to the Museum makes up the giant Blue Whale sure look impressive (normally Blue Whales are known to have 356 bones) – but also very reminiscent of any Dinosaur replica out there. Not to mention that the weight is now down to 4.5 tons – a remarkable weight-reduction from from the original 10-15 tons estimates of last century.

The number of similarities between Dinosaurs and giant Blue Whales are too many to constitute mere coincidence, and we are eagerly reminded the overly scripted nature of both ‘animals’. When we stop for a moment and reflect on how it is possible that these creatures are discovered all discovered by chance by trained professionals, are of the same size, both produce oil and are seen in the same museums, films and science books – it becomes clear they do indeed share too many features. They are even made by the very same men with the same techniques and instruments.

As much as the ocean is a vast domain where giant creatures indeed could exist, it is probable that the elite have managed to create a group of very distinct specimens for their very own purposes of capturing our imagination and skew our impression of the natural world. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks as they say and that much is clear concerning Whales and Dinosaurs – they are both either seen in a museum or found by a scientist you don’t know but is asked to trust. There seems to be no true hope for museums and the Natural History Museum’s new exhibit inaugurated the 14th July this year is no exception – it a false ‘Hope’ Blue Whale that is on display – just like Dippo before it.

“Give me a museum and I’ll fill it.”
– Pablo Picasso

The 126 year old ‘real’ skeleton of the Blue Whale baptised ‘Hope’ photographed in its new ‘home’ – the Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London – 3d printing at its best ?

With Dippo the Dinosaur gone on a UK tour, Blue Whale ‘Hope’ still is close to the skeleton of the Mantellisaurus dinosaur discovered on the Isle of Wight in 1917.

*Sir Richard Owen is well remembered for having coined the word Dinosaur (meaning ‘Terrible Reptile’ or ‘Fearfully Great Reptile’) and co-created the first life-size sculptures depicting dinosaurs for the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.

Some relevant links:
Worlds Largest Blue Whale Ever – Discovered in Sri Lanka
On the trail of the Wexford blue whale (‘Hope’)
NHM Live – Dippy the whale – interview with Richard Sabin
River Thames whale January 2006 – ‘hope’full pre-programming