Preparing the Blue Whale for the New Museum

Article | Updated 4 months ago

The Blue Whale skeleton is one of the Western Australian Museum’s oldest and largest specimens. It has a long and interesting history within the Museum and holds a special place in the hearts and memories of the people of our State. 

For nearly 120 years the WA Museum has been the home to this marine giant’s skeleton.

The size of Antarctic Blue Whales is quite astonishing. It is one of the biggest animals to have ever existed on Earth and can grow to be as long as 31 metres and weigh up to 180 tonnes. Their hearts weigh roughly the same as a small car, whilst their tongues weigh the same as an elephant.

The WA Museum’s specimen washed ashore in 1898, and remained at the mouth of the Vasse River (near Busselton) for three years before it was ready to be transported to Perth for display. During this time the Museum’s taxidermist, Otto Lipfert, worked with the help of a local farmer and two Japanese fishermen to remove the flesh from the carcass. The skeleton was then left on the shore for 12 months to bleach before the 356 bones were individually labelled for reassembly at a later time.

The skeleton, which measures 24 metres long, was transported by horse-drawn carriage to Busselton Railway station. From there it was taken to Perth by train where it was reconstructed in an open-faced shed at the Museum, located on the corners of Francis and Beaufort streets. In order to support the weight of the skeleton it was supported by more than a tonne of iron rods. The bones remained in this location until 1968, before moving to its new home within the Francis Street building.

Man standing in front of the blue whale skeleton

Man standing in front of the blue whale skeleton
Image copyright WA Museum 

In order for the skeleton to be moved into its new location on the fifth floor of the Brutalist-designed building, a crane was used to lift the skeleton into the Museum before the roof was completed.

Blue whale being craned into the Francis Street building

Blue whale being craned into the Francis Street building
Image copyright WA Museum 

From 1972 until the building’s closure in 2003, the Blue Whale display remained an icon of the Museum. Many Western Australians remember their excitement and wonderment as they ascended the Museum to the colossal display on level five.

Museum staff member assembling the blue whale skeleton

Museum staff member assembling the blue whale skeleton
Image copyright WA Museum 

Museum visitor and Blue Whale fan Jerome O’Driscmann remembers the skeleton as a child, “… I always remember as a kid racing to the top floor to see the whale swimming through the clouds. I can’t wait to see it.” The Francis Street building was closed in 2003 due to asbestos and for safety reasons, and the staff and collections were moved to the Collections and Research Centre in Welshpool. The Blue Whale was once again disassembled and moved in to storage. For almost 13 years the skeleton has been under wraps, waiting for its next iteration.

Blue whale skeleton in storage at the Collections and Research Centre

Blue whale skeleton in storage at the Collections and Research Centre
Image copyright WA Museum 

With the State Government commitment of $428.3 million for a New Museum within the Perth Cultural Centre, it has been confirmed that the one object that will return will be the Blue Whale. It is the object most asked about by the people of WA.

Project Director Trish McDonald said the people of WA had spoken and the Museum had listened. “We’re excited to be planning how we might display the Blue Whale in a dramatic and innovative way,” she said. In preparation for its move into the New Museum in 2020, conservators and staff have been working at the Western Australian Museum Collections and Research Centre to research the best way to preserve and display the bones. This week a motorised crane was brought in to weigh the massive bones. The enormity is evident with each mandible (jaw bone) weighing close to 400 kilograms, while the skull weighed close to 800 kilograms!

Blue whale bones being weighed at the Collection and Research Centre

Blue whale bones being weighed at the Collection and Research Centre
Image copyright WA Museum 

Blue whale bones being weighed at the Collection and Research Centre

Blue whale bones being weighed at the Collection and Research Centre
Image copyright WA Museum 

“We weighed and measured bones to get some understanding of the weight of the whole specimen so we can design the support structure for the New Museum,” said Trish McDonald. Before the skeleton makes its way to the New Museum, they will undergo further testing and preservation including ultrasounds and x-rays, to ensure the Blue Whale can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Blue whale on the 5th floor of Francis Street

Blue whale on the 5th floor of Francis Street
Image copyright WA Museum 

We’d love to hear your memories about the Blue Whale. Tell us what you remember of this gentle giant when it was displayed in Francis Street or in the shed at the WA Museum, or your hopes and dreams for its future display in 2020. www.museum.wa.gov.au/new-museum