Meet Winnie the whale, although let’s be clear, it’s not her “official” name. It’s alliteration on our part. But in telling her intriguing story she needs the personality that a name helps bestow. And so, until the Duchess of Cambridge officially “christens” her next week, let’s stick with Winnie.
In 1891 this 25-metre-long teenage blue whale beached in the Irish harbour town of Wexford and died. Her story could have ended there amid a frenzy of blubber boiling and bone business. Instead, a far-sighted employee of the Natural History Museum in London decided Winnie would make a spectacular addition to the museum’s burgeoning new collection and so purchased her carcass for the princely sum of £250 from an enterprising town merchant.
Stripped of her blubber – boiled down, she produced 640 gallons of oil – Winnie was broken up and shipped in multiple pieces to London. It was the start of a journey that resumes next week at a royal unveiling in South Kensington. The Museum’s head of conservation Lorraine Cornish picks up the story.
Too big to display
The Natural History Museum had already been open to the public for ten years when Winnie’s skeleton was acquired, but there wasn’t a gallery big enough to display it and so she remained in pieces until a special mammal hall was built in 1934. “The whale was the first thing we put in there and it was opened to the public a couple of years later,” says Cornish.
“It was put up by men in brown coats using odd bits of planks and scaffolding. Metal rods basically went all the way through the whale and they used combinations of bolts, nails, and huge wooden rivets – the most extraordinary things. In between each of the vertebrae the workmen had stuffed newspaper – probably the papers they had read on the train on their way in to work.”
While Winnie remained on display in the mammals gallery, the cast of a diplodocus dinosaur, fondly nicknamed Dippy, became the museum’s star attraction. Dippy took centre stage in the main entrance, Hintze Hall, in 1979. But the quest for contemporary relevance meant that in the last few years its days started to look numbered. “It was a big decision,” says Cornish. “We wanted to transform our central hall and to engage our visitors with the natural world, and we wanted to use an original specimen.” The answer lay in their mammals gallery, but would it be possible to move Winnie from the position she had occupied for over 80 years?
Having checked that the ceiling of the entrance hall could support the suspension of her four-tonne skeleton, the painstaking job of breaking up Winnie began in October 2015. “We started dismantling her from the tail end so we would learn on the way,” says Cornish. “It was a bit like reverse engineering because we didn’t have an awful lot of information about how they had connected the various parts together.
“We did CT scanning of the first eight tail vertebrae and the condition was fairly good. As we moved along the body we took more pieces off until we got to the six-metre-long skull, which was highly complicated. It took two or three weeks just to remove the skull. It was extremely nerve-racking
With the whale dismantled it was driven down to a hanger-like location in Bicester, Oxfordshire, where the job of cleaning and conserving began, an operation that was conducted in military-like secrecy. “When we went down there we’d say: ‘We’re going off to the gliding club,’” says Cornish.
“It was a big enough space for us to hang the whale so we could see what it would look like and do little bits of conservation work. And then it was dismantled again and there were lorry trips over several days back to London with each piece coming in through the front door, until we came to the skull and then we had to take the doors off the frame because it wasn’t going to fit through.” In total it took ten months to clean the skeleton and repair any cracks.
With the gallery closed, a team of up to 40 specialists was assembled to hoist the whale into place. Crucial for dramatic impact was to suspend it from the ceiling in a diving pose. “There were ten riggers up in the ceiling and one person with a laptop – it was a bit like watching a conductor with an orchestra,” says Cornish.
“Over several days, and piece-by-piece, the whale moved up to the height we wanted and we had laser measurements to ensure complete accuracy. The jaw is now about 4.4 metres from the ground and the rear is about 14 metres from the ground, so now this massive skull and jaw is opening up towards the visitors as if it is swallowing them up.” Eighteen cables now hold the huge skeleton in place and Cornish says she’s mesmerised every time she gets a private glimpse.
“It went up in May and we have been watching it closely, but we are very confident it’s going to hold up beautifully. I do get a bit emotional every time I see it. The hall is just a beautiful cathedral to nature.”
And what’s next for dippy?
Like any ageing superstar, Dippy gets to do a farewell tour. Starting in Dorset next February, it will visit eight venues in the UK including the Welsh parliament building in Cardiff and ending at Norwich Cathedral in 2020 (create your own dinosaur/religion/politics gags). “It will be a great ambassador for us and take our story out across the country,” says Cornish.
Horizon: Dippy and the Whale is on Thursday 9.00pm BBC2