A Century of Whales at the Smithsonian

The 1903 blue whale in the Natural History Museum
Remington Kellogg and Leonhard Stejneger with the 1903 blue, or sulphur-bottom, whale, on exhibit in the Natural History Museum, c. 1930s. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Whales have been at the heart of Smithsonian research since 1850, when Spencer Fullerton Baird first came to the institution. Baird was an avid naturalist with a strong interest in marine mammals, and he hired zoologists with similar interests. In 1871, Baird persuaded Congress to establish the U. S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries (which has as its successors today the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). He was appointed its first commissioner in a combined appointment with his Smithsonian role as assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. National Museum (today the National Museum of Natural History). Initially, Baird ran the agency as a de-facto division of the Museum. It was through the work of the Commission that Baird expanded the Museum’s collection of marine mammals, which originated with specimens from the U. S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-42.

Zoologists in the Museum’s current Marine Mammal Program maintain an excellent working relationship with the now independent NMFS, whose biologists continue to provide numerous additional specimens to the collection, which now numbers 7517 cetaceans, 3194 pinnipeds, and 387 sirenians. Today the Smithsonian Institution has the largest whale research collection in the world.

Since the nineteenth century, the Smithsonian has also been at the forefront of whale exhibition. Phoenix—a 45-foot, 2300-pound, full-scale model of the Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the centerpiece of the new Sant Ocean Hall—is the culmination of over a century’s-worth of innovation in the scientific casting and modeling of whales.

Many visitors may remember Phoenix’s predecessor—the enormous blue whale model that dominated the ocean hall of the 1960s, which was removed in 2000 as renovations began for the new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. But did you know that the Smithsonian created the world’s first full cast of a whale, a blue whale exhibited in 1904 at the St. Louis Exposition?

The 1903 Blue Whale 

Newfoundland Blue Whale—Exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904

Preview workers work on the blue whale cast
Workers prepare the giant blue whale cast for presentation at the St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904. (Smithsonian Institution)

In May 1903, Frederic A. Lucas, chief osteologist and head of exhibits, and two assistants William Palmer, chief taxidermist, and J. W. Scollick, osteological preparator, were dispatched by Frederick W. True, the National Museum’s curator of mammals and a scientific authority on whales, to the Cabot Steam Whaling Company’s principal station, Balena, on Hermitage Bay, Newfoundland, to obtain the world’s first full cast of a whale, which the Smithsonian would display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Little was known about whale biology at this time, but Lucas understood that the species prized by the whaling industry were experiencing devastating declines in their populations. Right and bowhead whales had been hunted to near extinction, and now that these species were harder to find, the whaling industry had turned its sights on the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), sometimes called the sulphur-bottom whale, the largest mammal in the world.

However, there was another more personal reason for obtaining the complete cast of a blue whale. Five years earlier Lucas had read with dismay an editorial notice in the July 1898 issue of Natural Science, describing the British Museum’s new Cetacean Gallery. The author claimed that no other museum had yet “solved the difficulty of exhibiting the outward form of the various kinds of whales which baffle the taxidermist’s art,” until Sir William Henry Flower had “at last . . . solved the problem in a most satisfactory manner.”

Lucas was incensed by the claim, as he knew that the Smithsonian’s long-time modeler and taxidermist, Joseph Palmer and his son, William Palmer, together with Secretary Spencer F. Baird, had discovered this exact solution sixteen years earlier while mounting the skeleton and cast of a 33-foot humpback whale. The innovative cast revealed on its left side a humpback whale, described in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1882, as in an “attitude of swimming through the water,” while the right side exposed the animal’s complete articulated skeleton. The half cast had been on exhibit in the south main hall of the National Museum since 1882.

To challenge the misstatement, True penned a response that the magazine Science—eager to establish the National Museum’s preeminence over the British Museum— rushed into print. True explained that the idea had originated with the Smithsonian more than fifteen years earlier, and he pointed out—in a move clearly meant to embarrass the British Museum—that the National Museum had exhibited a smaller whale mount at the London Fisheries Exhibition in 1883, which they had given to the British Museum!

Lucas and True were apparently not satisfied to end this transatlantic rivalry with an editorial; the Newfoundland expedition was to be the coup de grâce. Lucas had created an entirely new method for obtaining a scientifically accurate and complete cast of a whale. They would cast the dead animal while floating it in water.

On July 12, 1903, the whaling station at Hermitage Bay received word that one of their steamers had hauled in a blue whale, measuring 78 feet in length and weighing 70 tons. Lucas instructed the captain to tow the body “into shoal water [about 10 or 12 feet deep] just as the ebb tide set in.” Once the whale was in position, “tail toward the beach and the head seaward,” resting on its left side, Lucas, Palmer, and Scollick rowed out in a dingy and began the process of preparing the cast. For the next ten hours the Museum workers layered burlap, excelsior, and buckets of plaster of Paris over the whale’s body.

They took molds in sections, working down towards the median line of the stomach. Because whale flesh decomposes rapidly, the exhausted group had to continue working until the entire cast was complete. They left the head, which decomposes more slowly than the rest of the body, until last. When “the whale was hauled out on land and decapitated ... as soon as it was severed from the trunk we took a complete cast of the member, jaws and all, both inside as well as out,” and molded the flukes separately. For the next several days the station workmen helped strip fat from the blubber. The Museum workers were determined that “every part of the whale’s frame, even down to the smallest and most minute bones,” would be collected and treated with care.

The expedition returned to Washington, D.C., on July 22, with the skeleton and molds in several large crates. Lucas oversaw the modeling of the specimen, which he had to have completed in time for the St. Louis Exposition the following year. He wasted little time in staging the work, and news of the National Museum’s “cetacean monster” captured the American public’s imagination.

On August 16, the Washington Post reported: "Those who are anxious to settle the problem whether Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale would do well to pay a visit to the rear of the Smithsonian Institution, where for some days past a most remarkable and peculiar diagram has remained staked out on the lawn ... that has greatly puzzled those who have occasion to cross the Mall. ... Prof. Lucas ... and Mr. Palmer, the chief preparator, were bossing the work ... The diagram, as laid out, gives one a very correct idea of the whale, and those anxious to ascertain the truth or falsity of the Jonah story are at liberty to measure their length on the well-kept lawn within the area marked off for the whale’s stomach."

It took eight months to complete the enormous mannequin, which was done in a huge shed built especially for the purpose. The whale form was covered in papier maché, using old paper money pulp from the U.S. Treasury, and painted by Palmer. In early March 1904, the whole was disassembled into sections and shipped by rail to St. Louis.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, celebrated the centennial (one year late) of the 1803 purchase of Louisiana. The Smithsonian coordinated all of the exhibits for the U.S. Government. The building was considered one of the most impressive at the Fair and featured half a battleship, complete with armament; a relief map of the projected Panama Canal; 35 tanks of live fish, and a gigantic aviary with every known species of bird in the United States. The immense blue whale cast hung from the rafters and was described “as the most striking object . . . showing the natural appearance of this greatest of all living creatures.”

When the blue whale cast returned from St. Louis in 1905, it was suspended from the roof trusses of the South Hall in the Art and Industries Building. After the new U.S. National Museum (today the National Museum of Natural History) opened in 1910, it was moved across the Mall, mounted on a pedestal, and placed at the center on the Hall of Marine Life. For fifty years the seventy-eight-foot cast of the blue whale enchanted visitors to the Museum.

Excerpted from Mary Anne Andrei, Nature's Mirror: The Founding of America's Natural History Museums and the Early Wildlife Conservation Movement (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

The 1963 Blue Whale 

Preview a sculptor works on a huge blue whale model in scaffolding
Taxidermist/model maker John Widener working on the new blue whale model, 1962. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The 1903 blue whale model met its end around 1960 when it was replaced by a new, even bigger blue whale model. In the 1950s the Smithsonian began an institution-wide exhibits modernization program, and many halls of the Natural History building were completely renovated at this time. The new hall dedicated to Life in the Seas was to have as its centerpiece a state-of-the-art model of a blue whale in motion.

Modeling techniques had advanced considerably in the decades since 1903, and lightweight plastics and fiberglass allowed for a more dynamic posture. Museum director Remington Kellogg wanted a “scientifically accurate” model, but this proved challenging, as whale science—particularly the biology and behavior of blue whales—was hindered by the difficulty of tracking and observing whales in their natural habitat. Most whales could only be studied after they had washed up on a beach or at whaling stations after they had been killed and hauled to shore. Scientists could not agree as to whether or not the ventral plates of the mouth expanded when diving or rising, and this issue presented a significant problem in designing the blue whale model.

Scientists were only just beginning to capture some of the first underwater footage of whales. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, on board his ship Calypso (a specially outfitted research vessel that was originally a minesweeper in the British Royal Navy during World War II), filmed fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) swimming underwater. The footage was included in his 1956 French documentary film “Le monde du silence,” or “The Silent World.” Fin whales and blue whales are similar in body shape and both belong to a group of whales known as rorquals (baleen whales). The Smithsonian used this footage to inform their design of the new model.

The 94-foot-long model was not cast from a single specimen. It was fabricated based on two sets of measurements—the first from the female blue whale model in the British Museum of Natural History (BMNH) and the second from a female blue whale caught off South Georgia Island in the Antarctic in 1926. Creating templates and detailed measurements of their model, exhibit technicians plotted the curve and dimensions of the body, creating thirty-four paper templates, one for each rib that would support the whale. From the templates thirty-four sections of wood were fashioned into rib-like supports. The model itself was made of fiberglass. The entire process proved to be just as complicated and time-consuming as that to make the 1903 whale.

The whale was suspended thirty feet above the floor, attached to two steel brackets jutting out from the wall. A hole was left in the stomach so that workers could enter and remove the thin strips of plywood, wooden ribs, aluminum, and steel crossbars, and replace them with lighter weight plastic and fiberglass. After the ventral opening was closed, technicians spent weeks sanding the fiberglass to remove defects. Eighty to one hundred ventral throat grooves running longitudinally from below the mouth to the navel, which in the living blue whale expands while feeding, were carved into the fiberglass. The whole body was painted with varying tones of blue with whitish-yellow patches on its ventral portion.

Preview A blue whale model in the Life in the Sea exhibit
A close-up of the life-size blue whale model in the new “Life in the Sea” hall, 1963. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The exhibit opened in February 1963 in time for the First International Symposium on Cetacean Research. Suspended in air, visitors could imagine that “she has just risen from dark waters, expelled her breath, drawn in another, and is now about to lift her powerful tail in an upward swipe that will send her plunging to the icy depths.”

In 1976, a new exhibit label was added, explaining that there was an error with the model. New scientific data about whale behavior led Smithsonian biologists to reevaluate the accuracy of the blue whale model’s diving posture. Photographs of living blue whales still did not exist at this time, but there were a few photographs of other rorquals or baleen whales, including sei and minke whales, that revealed much slimmer, streamlined bodies than expected. “Only after a whale takes a mouthful of food and is about to swallow it, would its throat be expanded in this way,” the label explained.

The model became the property of the contractor hired to dismantle the old exhibit space. In July of 2000 he tried to sell it on eBay, with a reserve of $2.25. The description read: “LIFE SIZE Blue Whale sculpture from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. (I KNOW THAT A WHALE IS NOT A FISH.) IT’S NO FLUKE, THIS IS FOR REAL!! 92 FEET LONG nose to fluke. ... I have been given the rights to find a new home for this gorgeous piece. ... This would make a fantastic showpiece for an amusement park or theme park, public aquarium, or municipality.” Such a show was not to be, however. When the model was removed from the steel wall supports, it came apart, making it unfit for sale, and the contractor was forced to dispose of it. The Museum was able to retain the flukes.

The 2003 Right Whale - Phoenix 

Preview A painter sponges grey spots on the model whale
Exhibits preparator painting the model of Phoenix in 2003. (Chip Clark, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History)

Suspended at the center of the new Sant Ocean Hall is a life-size model of a North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix. The result of four years of work, and collaboration between exhibit fabricators, whale biologists, sculptors, painters, engineers, and many others, this exhibit is unique and exciting in that it represents a live animal. Phoenix has been tracked in her Atlantic Ocean environment by marine biologists at the New England Aquarium in Boston, ever since her birth off the coast of Georgia in 1987. Phoenix was chosen because so much is known about her and her family (her mother’s name is Stumpy). She is the mother of three calves and became a grandmother in 2007.

She got her name Phoenix from her ability to rise again, like the mythical bird, after a life-threatening entanglement with fishing gear in 1997. She still bears a scar below her right lip from that encounter, which you can see on the model and which scientists use to help identify her in the waters of the Atlantic.

Although it has been illegal to hunt right whales since 1935, they remain endangered. There were fewer than 450 of them in 2006. Scientists continue to track Phoenix and other right whales to learn more about them and to continue efforts to protect their habitat and ensure their survival.

Preview A model of a right whale hangs in the Ocean Hall
A view of the model of Phoenix in the new Sant Ocean Hall, 2003. (Chip Clark, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History)
April 2019