The Blue Whale in all its majesty

Artist impression of how the skeleton of a blue whale will look suspended and "diving" from the ceiling of the Hintze Hall

Artist impression of how the skeleton of a blue whale will look suspended and “diving” from the ceiling of the Hintze Hall

 


by Philip Hoare


The news that the Natural History Museum is to replace the emblematic cast of a diplodocus skeleton in its entrance hall will come as a shock to many, young and old. Silent, serpentine-necked “Dippy” has greeted visitors for 35 years. But I must admit I can only cheer his usurpation by an animal that actually exceeds him in size – and which, even more remarkably, still swims in our oceans: the blue whale.

 

For me, the great draw of the museum has never been its prehistoric lobby-loiterer, but the wonder of its Whale Hall. There, deep within the belly of the building, leviathans hang from the ceiling like gigantic Airfix models.

 

Prime among them is the skeleton which is about to take Dippy’s place. This 25-metre female blue whale was stranded in Wexford Harbour in 1891, having already been injured by a whaler. The NHM in London – then just 10 years old – bought the carcass for £250, a handsome sum which it partly recouped by selling off the 630 gallons of oil yielded by the whale’s blubber. (Even into the mid-20th century, the museum buried carcasses in its “whale pit” to render them down, until the well-heeled residents of South Kensington began to complain about the stink.) But the mighty specimen had to wait until 1938, when the Whale Hall opened, to assume its airy position.

 

When I was researching my book ‘Leviathan or, The Whale’, I made my pilgrimage back to the museum. As I wound my way through the throngs of children and parents, down dark corridors still thrillingly filled with moth-eaten taxidermy, I expected to find my childhood monsters diminished by time and memory.

 

Instead I stood there open-mouthed, a nine-year-old boy again. All the statistics came flooding back. An elephant could stand on a blue whale’s tail. A child could swim through its arteries. Its heart is as big as a car. A blue whale on one side of the Atlantic Ocean can be heard by a fellow whale on the other.

 

But what I hadn’t known as a boy was that the Whale Hall had been built to reflect Britain’s status as a whaling nation. Even in the Sixties, when I was at primary school, ships arrived in my hometown, Southampton, laden with whale oil destined to end up in margarine. When my mother kissed me goodnight, her cheeks brushed mine with make-up made from whale oil. Tennis racquets were strung with whale guts. Ground-up whale bones fertilised our roses. Whales were part of a worldwide economy.

 

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