Piecing Together the Long Forgotten Parts

The Whale Weekender was a conservation project organised by the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL on the 8th and 9th of July. The weekend saw eight hundred volunteers come together to piece together a whale skeleton to see if there were any missing parts.

It is a hot Sunday afternoon, too hot to be inside, too sunny not to be outside. But the north cloister, an airy hall leading to UCL’s main library, is buzzing with activity. Gathered here to assemble the bones of a Northern Bottlenose Whale is a large throng of volunteers. Perched on a plinth of tables garbed in black, the skeleton sits on a bed of white cushions in the middle of the room unaware that it is the centre of this odd assortment's attention. The researchers and staff of the Grant Museum of Zoology distribute bones to volunteers sat at various workspaces around the room. Those who are not marvelling at the incomplete osseous jigsaw are diligently cleaning over a century of dirt, dust and grime from the bottlenose’s last remnants.

I am wearing green rubber gloves and I use a piece of smoke sponge to scrub at a curving rib bone which is approximately two feet in length. I’m amazed at the amount of trust the museum are investing in the army of non-expert volunteers like myself. Over the course of the weekend each bone will be passed through tens of peoples’ hands. Those hands will alternately scrub the dust off the bones, polish them with putty and wet sponges, and order the parts, numbering them according to where they fit. It is like a giant jigsaw and Jack Ashby, the manager of the Grant museum and a team of staff, preside over it like puzzle masters. As Jack amends an incorrect number on the label of an intervertebral disc, too small to be attached to the vertebrae its number suggests, he jokes that perhaps it was a mistake to let a bunch of people off the street loose on this century and a half old skeleton.

He tells me the tale of the whale, which in his version begins, oddly enough, with a hunt for a hare. In 1860 a couple of Victorian hunters found themselves on the Somerset coast, by Weston-super-Mare. Armed with shotguns, the gun-toting duo was alerted to the presence of two "giant fish" spotted not far off the coast. They quickly forgot about the hares and went in pursuit of the whales. One of the whales got away, but the other one had twenty rounds fired into it before it bled to death and was hauled back to land.

Eager to show off their catch to the world - or the West Country at the very least - they boarded a train to Bristol with the carcass of the “Great Fish”, flesh and all, where it was exhibited in a museum for six weeks. Mr. Edward Goodingham purchased it for £120 which in those days was a lot of money. Not long after he got it home it started decomposing in earnest, and it soon became apparent that there was little demand for a stinking “Great Fish”. He eventually managed to sell it for a fiver. 

The next set of buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Mable sound somewhat smarter. They promptly buried their investment, waited a few years for the flesh to rot away, then exhumed the skeleton and boiled it, piece by piece in a copper basin. For years the skeleton was hung in a museum at Weston-super-Mare until in 1948 it was dismantled and scattered across the cupboards and store closets of the Grant Museum.

Now the future of the skeleton is uncertain. The Grant Museum, full to bursting point with zoological and anatomical marvels, has little room to display the eight-metre skeleton of an adult bottlenose whale. So what purpose does it serve to put together the fragmented pieces of a half forgotten mammal? As the grime gradually comes away from the rib bone I’m scrubbing, there is the satisfaction of salvaging a piece of natural history from being forgotten. The excercise is also for the museum staff to find out if the skeleton is incomplete which it is. The list of missing parts includes forarms, pelvis, hyoid and at least one rib. But despite what it is lacking this bottlenose whale, or at least the parts that remain, are educating a willing team of eight hundred volunteers not only on the importance of conservation but the skills, care and patience required for it.


Femi Oriogun-Williams

Perhaps you are still piecing together the parts of your submission for our upcoming season #SPAREPARTS18, perhaps you still only have the barebones? The deadline is on the 16th of July so get polishing because the clock is ticking...