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On March 25 1891, a young blue whale, injured by a whaling ship’s harpoon, beached herself and died on a sandbank at the mouth of Wexford Harbour in south-east Ireland. After the carcass had been stripped of meat and 630 gallons of whale oil, a local merchant sold the skeleton for £250 to the Natural History Museum, which had opened in London a decade earlier.

This summer, the unfortunate whale — let’s call her Blue — will have a glorious renaissance as the centrepiece of the museum’s great entrance hall following a £12m redevelopment. She takes the place of Dippy the dinosaur, who has been banished on a tour of Britain. Instead of a replica diplodocus skeleton plodding across the floor, visitors will see a real 25.2-metre whale swooping gracefully from the ceiling when Hintze Hall reopens to the public after a six-month closure.

“We have arranged the skeleton in an S-shaped lunge-feeding pose,” says Richard Sabin, the museum’s marine mammals curator. “The whale is diving acrobatically towards a patch of krill [small crustaceans] with her jaws open, to take a huge gulp of water from which she will filter out her meal. This is the single largest feeding event of any animal in the history of our planet.”

Although gigantism on land reached a peak with dinosaurs, today’s blue whales are the biggest animals that have ever lived on land or sea. Evolutionary studies suggest that baleen whales, and the blue whale in particular, have grown to this scale within the past three million years in response to the availability of huge concentrations of krill, which they can catch and eat through their specialised filter-feeding mechanism.

The choice of Blue (whose official name has not yet been revealed) to welcome visitors to the remodelled hall is partly aesthetic. Her skeleton fits superbly into Alfred Waterhouse’s 1881 neo-Romanesque structure, an architectural glory of Victorian London, and the colour and texture of her bones match the terracotta walls.

The blue whale’s 25-metre skeleton is laid out on the floor of Hintze Hall before being raised to the ceiling © Kate Peters

But a more fundamental reason, as the museum’s director Sir Michael Dixon puts it, is to “make a statement of intent about the relationship between humans and the natural world. Using our scientific resources, we want to challenge people to think about the future of the natural world, at a time when it faces threats that have never been greater.”

Blue died, at an estimated age of 10, as commercial whaling was building to its peak. The global population of blue whales had fallen from an estimated pre-industrial level of about 250,000 to no more than 500 when an international agreement banned their hunting in 1966. Some scientists feared then that there were so few left scattered around the world’s oceans that the species was doomed to extinction. 

Fortunately, whaling stopped just in time, and blue whales have increased to about 20,000 animals today, says Sabin, including several hundred in the North Atlantic. Although numbers are still rising, scientists warn that whales, like other marine mammals, are very vulnerable to man-made changes in the oceans, from noise and plastic pollution to warming and acidification. 

While Blue is the star of the new-look Hintze Hall (renamed in 2014 to recognise a £5m gift from the financier Sir Michael Hintze), visitors will also see an array of other objects, some of them old favourites of the museum, others making a first appearance. With some 80 million specimens in storage, there is no shortage of potential exhibits.

Mark Graham, fossil curator, prepares the skeleton of a mantellisaurus © Kate Peters

At ground level are 10 displays, called Wonder Bays, with different sides of the hall reflecting the original distinction between the extinct and the extant made by the museum’s founder Richard Owen. On the eastern side are large animal and plant fossils, as well as spectacular geological specimens designed to take visitors back billions of years into “deep time”, while demonstrating patterns of evolution, extinction and environmental change. On the west are living species preserved in imaginative new ways.

When the museum decided to redevelop the hall, the idea of the bays came first — before the decision to replace Dippy — says Ian Owens, science director. “Each bay had to pass three tests: as a work of art it must be beautiful or intriguing to look at; it should immediately inform visitors about the museum’s work and purpose; and it must tell a great story. Our teams put forward a hell of a list of objects that could feature in the bays, with individuals fighting for their favourites.”

But the future of Dippy soon came up. “At the beginning, moving Dippy was an idea that dared not speak its name,” says Owens, who has been key to the hall’s redevelopment. “Like many of my colleagues, I was emotionally attached to Dippy, but we realised that if we were going to get people to think differently about natural history, we had to make a bold decision. Not everyone agreed. It was a moment of family trauma.”

Mantellisaurus © Kate Peters

Now Dippy’s skeleton — a plaster cast presented to the museum in 1905 — is in Canada, being restored and strengthened before going on tour to eight venues around the UK, starting next February at Dorset County Museum and ending at Norwich Cathedral in 2020. Where she goes after that remains to be seen.

The staff eventually agreed how to fill the bays, though there was one last-minute change, when the planned great white shark was replaced with another large sea creature washed up on a beach. Last September, a couple walking their dog at Freshwater East in Pembrokeshire discovered a 4-metre-long blue marlin. When I visited in May the marlin, one of the world’s largest predatory fish, was lying in a freezer container in the museum car park waiting to be preserved more permanently. (The shark has been returned to storage.) 

“We are using a new preservation material — glycerol — which we hope will give a more natural appearance, including some restoration of colour,” says Ollie Crimmen, senior fish curator, who worked with Damien Hirst on preserving the artist’s famous shark in formaldehyde. “This is the first time we have preserved a large fish in glycerol.” The technique is expected to avoid the deterioration that afflicted Hirst’s shark after a few years.

Other recently collected specimens from the British coastline are in a different bay. Three tall panels contain seaweeds in different shapes and colours, from green to pink, pressed between two sheets of glass with a special preserving compound in the middle. “We wanted to create a beautiful work of art that demonstrated the diversity of seaweeds growing around our shores,” says Lorraine Cornish, the museum’s head of conservation.

Two giraffes — one a skeleton and the other stuffed — represent living land animals. This display shows how taxidermy and skeletal study offer complementary approaches to comparative anatomy. It also enables the museum to explain the surprisingly close evolutionary relationship between whales and even-toed ungulates such as giraffes. (The land animal most closely related to whales is the hippopotamus.)

An American mastodon; the species became extinct about 13,000 years ago © Kate Peters

On the extinct side of the hall is a fossil acquired by Richard Owen for the British Museum in 1844, long before he proposed setting up a separate Natural History Museum. It is a skeleton of an American mastodon, an elephant-like creature that was wiped out only 13,000 years ago by a combination of climate change, habitat loss and prehistoric human hunting.

And, of course, after Dippy’s departure, the hall needed a dinosaur. “We chose a mantellisaurus because it is one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons discovered in the UK and it’s a nice medium-sized specimen that fits well into a bay,” says Paul Barrett, the museum’s dinosaur researcher. The skeleton was excavated on the Isle of Wight in 1917. “Mantellisaurus is an iguanodon-type dinosaur that ate low-growing bushes and plants such as ferns and horsetails — with a chewing mechanism quite like cows and sheep today,” he adds. It lived about 125 million years ago.

But my favourite Wonder Bay exhibit is a two-tonne rock with spectacular wavy bands in various shades of orange and brown. Although it is not a fossilised animal or plant, it owes its existence, like many rocks and minerals, to biological processes. 

“This banded ironstone was laid down about 2.5 billion years ago, a critical moment in Earth’s history when the atmosphere was changing rapidly,” says Richard Herrington, the museum’s head of earth sciences. The oxidising chemistry of the oceans precipitated dissolved iron on to the seabed as iron oxide and, over time, this hardened into a sedimentary rock with alternating bands of haematite (iron oxide) and silica. The museum originally obtained a 12-tonne lump of ironstone from a mine in Western Australia. It was cut down to two tonnes, polished in Perth and then shipped to London last year. Visitors will be encouraged to run their hands over the specimen’s curvaceous face. 

Banded ironstone. This ironstone from Western Australia marks a key moment in geological history. As photosynthesis by micro-organisms changed Earth’s chemistry 2.5 billion years ago, iron oxides precipitated out of the oceans and formed new rock © Kate Peters

The hall’s novelties continue in the balconies and galleries on the first and second floors, level with Blue. On the western side are colourful displays of “life in the air”. Two 5m-high cases contain 70 specimens of birds — parrots, seabirds and peafowl — to show both how species evolve and the threats to their existence. 

On the eastern side are similar cases with 120 geological specimens that demonstrate how Earth acquired its extraordinary diversity of rocks and minerals, from pure chemical elements to compounds of great complexity. 

The second floor will invite visitors to engage with the architecture and decor of Alfred Waterhouse’s museum, including an interactive display focusing on the intricately designed ceiling. From each level they can examine Blue’s bones from different angles. The flow of her S-shape can be appreciated from the top of the back staircase, with flippers tilted at different angles — the left slightly down and the right up a bit — as she turns in mid-dive. There are also strange evolutionary vestiges to see, such as the remnant pelvic bone that sat within her soft tissue rather than being connected to the vertebrae.

British seaweed © Kate Peters

The smallest bone on show, no bigger than a human knuckle, is the last of Blue’s 64 vertebrae. When the museum first displayed the skeleton in 1934, after 43 years in storage, the team that mounted it beneath the ceiling of the mammal hall forgot to include its tiny tail-end. Charles Gerrard, the chief installer, kept the bone and passed it on to a friend, whose descendants read about the whale’s installation in Hintze Hall and donated the bone back to the museum.

Although Blue spent more than 80 years in the mammal hall, her skeleton — arranged in a flat swimming pose and gathering dust — did not stand out for visitors in that crowded space. The museum took her down last year and transported the skeleton in four lorries to what was then a secret location, an aircraft hangar at Bicester. There a team from Research Casting International, a Canadian preparer of large museum fossils, spent three months intensively restoring the bones with new bearings and armature supports.

Their return to South Kensington — at dead of night while the museum was clear of visitors — was the most nerve-racking moment of the whole project. “The biggest challenge was getting the 6-metre skull through the front doors,” says Lorraine Cornish. “We had only 4cm-5cm to spare on each side as we pushed the skull in sideways, after removing the front doors. The whole process took several hours, finishing at 2.30am.” Blue took up her final position on May 12, before most of the bays were finished.

Imilac meteorite. Discovered in Chile’s Atacama desert in 1822, this is the oldest object on show, dating from the dawn of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Light shines through its translucent crystals of olivine within a metallic matrix of nickel-iron © Kate Peters

How long will she stay there? On past form, a few decades would be a reasonable guess. For its first 20 years or so, the central hall hosted a sperm whale specimen, though it sat on the floor rather than diving from the ceiling like Blue. Then, in 1907, a huge stuffed African bull elephant called George took centre stage. He was first in a line of elephants that dominated the hall until 1979, when Dippy appeared.

The Hintze Hall project was funded by donations worth £12m from individuals and foundations, without the museum having to dig into its own resources. “It heralds a process of change across all our galleries over a long period but it also makes an immediate statement about the museum,” Dixon says. Visitor numbers there — 4.6 million last year — have fallen slightly since the hall was closed but an upturn is expected after the reopening. 

Dippy may be mourned but Blue is expected to be a popular substitute. While her untimely death reminds us of our history of over-exploiting the natural world, she also brings a spectacular posthumous presence to one of London’s great public spaces. 

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor 

Photographs: Kate Peters / kiosk 

Hintze Hall reopens to the public on July 14

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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