Whale Tale

DISCUSSED: Palpable Curatorial Power, Proper Protuberance, Grotty Talk at the Ladies’ Luncheon, Moot Aeronautical Dilemmas, The Limits of Papier-Mache, Simulated Phosphorescent Bacteria, Leviathan Sushi, Gargantuan Sensaround Corpses

Whale Tale

Lawrence Krauser
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When the Hall of Ocean Life at New York’s American Museum of Natural History opened to the public in 1933, the New York Times reported that the “general appearance, architecturally, is somewhat suggestive of a cathedral,” and indeed the cavernous Beaux Arts hall, inspired by London’s Crystal Palace, was evocative in scale of the oceans it purported to glorify. However, as in many houses of worship, form rather upstaged content. Despite twenty-five years’ devotion to gathering material and data from across the globe (sea-creature measurements, skeletons, corpses to be pickled for later study and re-creation), the new hall was palpably devoid of curatorial power. The Times seemed more impressed by the paint job on the ceiling—which mimicked a bright blue sky, white clouds lazing sixty feet above the floor—than by any of the actual exhibits.

What had the museum been thinking when, like Icarus in a snorkel, it set out to emulate Poseidon? What contents could ever become such a space? So vast was the room that many exhibits—including the skeletons of most of the world’s largest whales, from gray to right to finback to sperm—suspended from above by airplane cable (a big improvement over the conspicuous iron rods used to hang exhibits in the older halls), and the likewise-soaring lifesize lifelike models of killer, beluga, and bowdoin, of narwhal and giant squid and bottleneck porpoise, any one of which would have warranted top billing in many a respectable museum show, not to mention the floorbound Pacific walri, the obese and hideous manatee, the fifteen thousand mollusks, the forty-ton Bahamian coral reef boasting hundreds of species frozen in immaculate harmony, the majestic and almost extinct Guadeloupian elephant seal with its flapping muzzle and pendulous trunk whose terrifying-if-total-bluff barks you could almost hear—

All these hefty marvels had the cumulative effect of a baggie of minnows let loose in a Roman bath. They could not even compete with the manmade creations of muralist John P. Benson, who (under the direction of Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy, scientist on board the New Bedford whale ship Daisy during its 1912-13 expedition) had rendered a series of grand lunette-shaped panels depicting A Day in the Life of a Sperm Whaler, intended to awe and educate viewers on every aspect of that brave trade, from “The Chase” to “The Attack” to “Towing the Carcass.” (Or was the idea from the get-go to offset lame furniture with epic wallpaper?) For fans of three dimensions, the Hall of Ocean Life was from day one a colossal failure. Of its specimen lineup’s many would-be glories, the most striking by far was a perfect pair of Con gloria maris, one of the rarer sea shells. But both these shells could be comfortably cupped in a child’s palm; they did nothing to fill the gaping million-cubic-foot cavity. In the words of mammalogical curator H. E. Anthony,“There are several other features which are needed for the hall, but which call for the appearance of a fairy godmother to supply the necessary funds and luck, [including] the skeleton and field measurements of a really large blue whale” (“Glimpses into the Hall of Ocean Life,” Natural History, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, 1933: 365-80).

Now, although Mr. Anthony perhaps wished to avoid the fact, the museum already had a blue whale—but it was in another wing of the museum entirely. In 1908 a seventy-six-foot model of the Balaenoptera musculus had been constructed from pipe, lath, chicken wire, and plaster of paris, and suspended (by nineteen iron rods) from the ceiling of the Hall of the Biology of Mammals. Since then, this whale had reigned as the most popular exhibit in the entire permanent collection—the very reason why, when in the twenties the board of directors had thought to expand, they’d turned to the sea for material, and conceived the Hall of Ocean Life.

That it had no blue whale of its own quickly proved an enormous faux pas. The old one was a full three-minute walk from the rest of its aquatic compadres. Every day, almost every hour, staff in the Hall of Ocean Life sheepishly redirected those who’d come to see the whale to the cramped, dark north wing where it hung among the larger land mammals, yaks and sloths and grizzlies, a fish out of water if ever there was.The huge size and antiquated construction made moving it to the new and appropriate hall unthinkable. By 1933 it had been commanding audiences for twenty-five years (at that time the full estimated life expectancy of blues in the wild), but its career was not even half over.To the embarrassed consternation of the Ocean Life curators, that misplaced whale would persist as the museum’s senior ambassador of the sea for another three decades. It was an embarrassing situation. As for the hollow hall itself, it was often closed during those years; humongous and eschewed, it was simply not cost-efficient to heat on cold days.

In 1959, with the museum’s centennial ten years away, the urgency for something to be done about the errant occupier of its ocean throne reached a critical point. The solution was obvious. The old icon was slated for smashing and technology enlisted to come up with a bigger, better whale to be installed in its rightful location in time for the museum’s imminent centennial bash. The story fed to the public was that the old blue was simply not up to modern cetology’s exacting standards of accuracy. According to chief mammalogist Richard G.Van Gelder, the 1908 whale “did not bulge properly and the eyes were not properly protuberant” (Christian Science Monitor, November 1968). There was some apparent truth to that. Due to the limitations of using paper-machiér on such a grand scale, the thing was as horizontal and supple as a toppled odalisque; never did anything look so sinkable.

The Hall of Ocean Life would, with its new blue whale, seek to distance itself from the old, while at the same time invoke it in dynastic terms so as to capitalize on its longtime celebrity. “What was its name? It was The Whale,” answered Van Gelder when questioned on the transfer of power. “And that’s what the new one will be. The Whale. When you have a superlative, it doesn’t need a name.” Van Gelder was appointed to helm the project but was told to avoid using “strings” to suspend the new one; the higher-ups found the airplane cable too cobwebbingly industrial for their display of nature’s wet wonders; they wanted nothing dangling.

What to do, then? Put the thing on a pedestal? The Thanksgiving Parade, which marched past the museum each year on Central Park West, suggested one solution: helium-filled rubber. But this, thought Van Gelder, would not be consistent with the institution’s reputation as a bastion of serious science; might as well use Silly Putty. At a meeting of the powers that be, he, running through the options, jokingly observed that if they made their model a beached whale, this would moot their aeronautical problems. Alas for the poor mammalogist, his deadpan was more convincing than he’d known, and he soon found himself fielding enthusiastic questions as to the possible size and posture for a washed-up dead blue whale. Confused, but not wanting to dis- courage the interest he’d provoked,Van Gelder speculated that a generous base of actual sand could be easily made, and the model half-submerged in opaque “simulated water.” After all, an entire whale was rarely seen in the actual wild—did anyone really need to view more than its head and tail? (In private, Van Gelder bemoaned this idea as the “gopher plan.”) A detailed lighting design was proposed in which, over a five-minute cycle, the whale could be seen in a variety of simulated lighting conditions, from sunrise to midnight. During the latter, simulated phosphorescent bacteria would illuminate the whale with an ultraviolet glow from water-level. The shrieks of gulls and other seabirds would fill the air via the most modern hi-fi equipment; some might even perch on the dead beast’s back, preparing to dine on leviathan sushi.

Prospects looked dismayingly good for the carcass scenario, and for weeks Van Gelder labored in a kind of unbelieving daze, preparing to present detailed plans at a luncheon of the Women’s Committee, a key unit of the museum’s fundraising network. Over champagne and chicken à la king, attendees thrilled to his careful description of the proposed exhibit. Van Gelder did his best to describe the sensory experience their efforts would create in the hitherto infamously dull hall, concluding: “A gentle breeze will waft the odor of the sea toward the visitors, to complete the attack on all the senses, and we are even going to try to simulate the odor of the decomposing whale, so that all can share in this wonderful experience in totality!”

The last detail was a bit too grotty for the lunching ladies, and with it Van Gelder achieved his secretly desired effect: the committee was thoroughly disgusted by his pungent vision of a gargantuan sensaround corpse. He was happy to quickly receive from Central Command the order to abort Operation Beached Whale.

And so the flying fish was back on the table. A savvy fellow from Exhibition suggested attaching it to the ceiling with a single steel bolt just in front of its dorsal. This innovative solution, quickly embraced, would also allow great freedom in the choosing of a pose. After much discussion it was decided that, instead of building another inert block of whale, the new one would be given the air of a living, moving—indeed, leaping—animal. It would be arched in posture as a live one would be upon return to the water after a heroic, full-body breach. Measurements for the whale were drawn from an exemplary ninety-four-foot Antarctic female killed and filed in the 1920s. Experts from the Smithsonian Institution (which had recently assembled a ninety-two-foot blue), and from the British Museum (eighty-nine feet), were consulted on matters of accuracy. Unlike its irksome predecessor, the new whale would not be painted bright blue (a color it acquired only when seen through water), but a more authentic shade of gray.

Several hundred thousand dollars and one sexual revolution later, The Whale was ready to be nailed to the ceiling. Blueprints drawn by Sverdrup and Parcel of 111 Eighth Avenue had been sent to Structofab, a building-parts factory in Macon, Georgia, where the whale kit was prepared in one hundred separate pieces. These were then shipped to New York and laid out on the floor of the Hall of Ocean Life.The steel skeleton was jigged in place in two major sections—sixty-six feet (front) and twenty-eight feet (rear)—and giant wedges of polyurethane were fit into the frame to complete the form. Plastic foam bonded the slices to each other and to the steel, and fiberglass was applied in great sheets to provide a receptive surface for the paint.

From “The Polygram,” a publication of the Mobay Chemical Company, spring 1969:

Rigid urethane foam was chosen as the modeling medium because it is easily molded, carved, sanded, and smoothed to exact dimensions and contours. It is also inexpensive to produce, easy to patch and rework, if necessary. This material is becoming a popular medium for prototyping components for design analysis in application research and product development departments in many industrial areas—especially large-size parts such as wing sections for aircraft…

The whole thing weighed ten tons—a tenth as much as it would if built of blubber. On the day in question, professional skyscraper construction workers, leaning from scaffold and enormous pulleys, led the migration from floor to ceiling. Tom O’Toole, “whale construction manager,” was quoted in the next day’s Daily News as saying, “If the thing fell, it would splatter like a watermelon. This was my first whale and I hope it’s my last one.”

So far, so good.With the raising of The Whale, the yawning flop that once was the Hall of Ocean Life instantly became one of New York’s most magnificent and purposeful interiors, invigorated by its massive pendant, at last fulfilling its cathedral promise in a graphic and palpable way, open and intelligible to all.


More than thirty years passed without significant revision. Then, in January 2002, the museum exhibited questionable judgment by closing the room for a year of renovation when the city most needed its houses of meditation and reflection.Twenty-five million dollars were spent to create, in the words of the official press release, “a fully immersive marine environment with video projections, interactive computer stations, and new ocean dioramas,” and to install in the ceiling the relentless illusion of sunny dapples on the ocean surface; this effect was also applied to The Whale’s skin, as were twenty-five gallons of verisimilitudinous paint, a protective lip for the blow hole, gogglier eyes, tail trim, and a six-inch belly button. Eight new ecosystems and the debut of 150 marine figurines contributed to making the Millstein Hall of Ocean Life (freshly monikered in honor of the principal donors) feel kind of cluttered. ✯

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