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The Whale Hall soon to reopen

The cleaning of the whale skeletons at the University Museum of Bergen is now finished and on 20 April the Whale Hall is open to the public again.

Photo:
Walter Wehus

– We are particularly pleased at how good the blue whale is looking. But at 24 meters, our little blue whale is not amongst the biggest of its kind, staff engineer Marielle Bergh says.

Bergh looks at the blue whale and around the rest of the Whale Hall and inhales. Upon entering the big hall in the centre of the University Museum of Bergen, you can feel that the air is fresher than before.

Closed for two years

For two years, the 22 whale skeletons that constitute the museum´s Whale Hall have been off limits to the public. During this time, comprehensive cleaning has been in progress. With this process finished, the Whale Hall will again be open to the public from 20 April.

– It feels good to observe that our work here is coming to a close, Bergh says.

The hall seems spacious without all the scaffolding. Because of their size, the whale skeletons could not be removed but were cleaned whilst hanging down from the ceiling of the museum. No one knows how much the biggest skeletons weigh nor indeed how they ever entered the museum building.

– Maybe they were brought in through the wall when the side wings were added to the building, Bergh muses.

Simple methods, hard work

Over the last two years, five people have worked full time to preserve the skeletons. It takes two to three months to clean each skeleton. Add to this the restoration and correction of the anatomical detail. According to Bergh, several of the bones hang more accurate now than before. As far as the blue whale skeleton was concerned, several of the ribs had been broken because of the weight. They have now received more support.

When chief engineer Gordon Turner-Walker started the whale washing process in the spring of 2012, he called it housekeeping on steroids. Later he changed his account and in the University Museum of Bergen´s yearbook for 2011 he compared it to cleaning the paintings in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

A number of cleaning methods were tested, including potato starch and sandblasting with finely ground walnut shells. In the end what worked best was diluted ammonia and using a wet-dry vacuum.

– We tested a lot of technical equipment but the old methods proved to be the best, Bergh explains.

When the work on cleaning the whales started, no one knew about anything similar having been done before. Every skeleton was covered in almost half a kilo of fine dusts, and this is where the wet-dry vacuum proved helpful.

Making new discoveries

The whale project also unearthed a few secrets. Amongst them a carving stating «C.I. 1873». There was a metal stamp from 1882 imprinted on the blue whale and there were also traces of knife marks, indicating that the whales were skinned by hand.

– Before the project, these traces were not visible underneath the layers of dirt, Bergh says.

Bergh and her colleague Adam Kurz are currently working on some of the smaller whale skeletons, which were not part of the original whale project. Their aim is to prepare these skeletons for the start of the Museum Project 2014.

Provided funding is granted, the Natural History Collections will close for renovation and restoration in September 2012. At which point most of the skeletons will be removed from the building alongside the other collections. That is, excepting the biggest skeletons. They will remain in place.

– The big skeletons will be firmly wrapped up and we will overview their condition whilst work on the museum takes place. Amongst the techniques will be use of a vibration meter, Bergh says.

 

The meticulous work in the Whale Hall has been documented in detail on the Whale Bone Blog, where you can find a collection of videos, pictures and texts on the project. Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Ole Drønen.