Whales: Beneath the surface, Natural History Museum, London

Swimming through the air, mouth gaping, back arched as it dives; the newly displayed Blue Whale in the Hintz Hall of the Natural History Museum is spectacular. I was upset to hear that Dippy the Diplodocus was going to be replaced. He had been the guardian of the Hintz Hall for each of my visits, so it was hard to imagine how anything could take his place.

Anyone following the story of the installation of the whale skeleton will be aware of a handful of the facts and figures; it’s a 25.2 meter long female, the only whale skeleton to be articulated in a diving lunge feeding position. Nothing really prepared me for the spectacular scale.

I love everything about the whale . . . apart from one thing. She has been named ‘Hope’. I understand the thoughts behind the name. We have the power to save and protect the environment. It has after all been the human race that have driven down blue whale numbers to the brink of extinction, from an estimated 250,000 in the 1800s to around 400 by 1966. Thankfully it was decided at this date to legally protect the Blue Whale from commercial hunting, which has allowed numbers to rise to around 20,000. However, there are two blindingly obvious things about this whale that really make ‘Hope’ an unfortunate title; it’s dead and slightly out of reach. Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but it hardly makes the future look bright.

To coincide with the reopening of the Hintz Hall and to welcome Hope to her new home is an exhibition called ‘Whales: Beneath the Surface’, which allows visitors to explore the lives of whales and other cetaceans (that’s aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins) in more detail.

It’s a really well thought out exhibition, integrating interactives, interpretation and museum collection to create an engaging space. The exhibition starts by presenting the evolution of whales from 50 million years ago, when they lived on land and looked like a bizarre looking dog. Over time their back legs shrank and there is an excellent skeleton that is definitely more of a recognisable whale shape, but has comedy tiny back legs.

The interactives are cleverly thought out, from a projector that shines a light on your hand to show you what the bones in your hand look like to compare to a whale’s fins, to an echo location game when you follow a sound to find prey. There is also a whale juke box, which discusses the songs of the humpback whale and how they have changed and developed over time. A more basic, but incredible effective, interactive is a sample of faux whale skin, allowing you to get a sense of what a whale feels like.

North Atlanic Humpback Whale Natural History Museum

The collection on display is impressive and interpretation panels present how many species are presented in the exhibition. There is also an interesting mix of skeletal remains and wet specimens, presenting both the sea mammals and the different foods that they eat. Although sad, the wet specimens of humpback whale foetuses from different times during the gestation period were a really clear way of seeing how these baby whales develop during their time in utero. These specimens have been in the collection for more than 100 years and it was whalers that killed these animals, not the scientists who were on board ships as observers.

Skeleton Flippers Natural History Museum

The exhibition concludes with a piece of art created in response to the display, which I can’t really claim to understand or feel a connection to, although it was a tactile sculpture and portrays a differing perspective. It did not have the power to move me in the way that the collection on display did; probably most notable of which were the skeletal flippers of a blue and a humpback whale, each bone of which was bigger than my hand.

Whales: Beneath the surface is a temporary exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London from the 14 July 2017 – 28 February 2018


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