Leaning over a massive tangle of wire and bones in Dublin’s Natural History Museum, a group of specialists delicately tries to disassemble two whale skeletons that have been floating above visitors’ heads for more than a century.
« It’s a bit like working on a puzzle, but without a box or a nice photo of the final rendering, » jokes Nigel Monaghan, who is in charge of the stuffed animal collection.
Because to disassemble a whale skeleton, he explains to ., « there is no manual or user guide », hence the need for a solid anatomical knowledge.
Located near the Irish Prime Minister’s office, within the National Museum of Ireland, the Natural History Museum is embarking on a vast € 15 million renovation project.
Founded in 1856, the facility is affectionately known to the Irish as the « zoo of the dead » for its huge and somewhat macabre collection of stuffed animals.
« We see our museum as a majestic mansion of death, » says Monaghan, who observes the work from a gallery that overlooks the main room, where antelope heads, jars full of snakes and a hard-eyed penguin are stacked.
– Save the whales –
In preparation for the great operation that is about to take place, all of the museum’s residents are being packed and stored.
Here lies the head of a hippopotamus protected with bubble wrap, there a lone tusk on a foam cushion.
The building has many problems to solve: poor insulation, lack of lift for the disabled, absence of emergency exits in the upper galleries.
But the renovation work on the building’s huge glass roof has hit a major obstacle: the two huge whale skeletons, emblematic of the museum, that are attached to it.
At 20 meters long, a fin whale – the world’s second largest species after the blue whale – has dominated the highest part of the room since it was brought in from southern Ireland in the late 19th century.
The cetacean was joined in 1909 by a much smaller companion, a young thirty-foot humpback whale that had run aground decades earlier in the northwestern Irish town of Enniscrone.
Now it is surrounded by a scaffold equipped with a complex system of cables and pulleys and a crane that can lift up to 2,000 kilograms.
– Reflection and emotion –
Disassembling the skeleton of a whale requires experts.
For this daunting task, the Dublin Museum has brought in two specialists from the Netherlands to work with the local team, accurately labeling each bone so that they can easily be put back in place after renovation works.
In total, the decommissioning will take nearly three months, with interruptions to allow the Dutch team to return home, while scaffolding is installed around the second cetacean.
The work takes place at a strange pace, consisting of endless hours spent evaluating the situation or developing strategies, followed by a few stressful minutes of delicate manipulations.
And unlike a classic puzzle, the task gets more and more complicated as you go along.
Removing part of the skeleton alters its center of gravity, which can cause the bone structure to move in the air at any time and some of the bones to crack.
When the team finally decides to remove the humpback whale’s left fin, the multiple bones that make it up are firmly attached to each other and attached to the crane that passes them from the hands of the staff at the top of the scaffolding to their colleagues below.
But for a few seconds, neither team has them in hand.
Hanging at the end of the crane, the fin swings suddenly to the right, causing screams in the silent atmosphere of the museum. It finally reaches the bottom and is placed safely on a foam mat.
The operation has to be repeated for another 170 bones still waiting their turn.
jts-acc / pc