Big Blue Returns

From Ocean Navigator #131
July/August 2003
In 1969, when the blue-whale model was first installed in the halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the manager of construction, Lyle Barton, was not a popular figure with his work crew. He was brusque and short-tempered and – hounded by the museum’s curator, whose idea it had been to hang the whale – would pace the hall in fear that the 21,000-lb whale model would come loose and crash to the floor, onto the heads of awestruck museumgoers. “It was (Barton’s) neck on the block if the whale failed,” said Dr. Melissa Stiassny, curator of the museum’s division of vertebrate zoology, in an email interview. “The idea to suspend the whale from the ceiling was a novel idea, and Van Gelder,” the museum’s curator at the time, “was obsessive that when the whale was finally hoisted up, it stay up.”

Barton reportedly lost sleep over the project, which made him even more irritable and prone to fidgeting in the weeks leading up to the opening. One such nervous habit involved using a long wooden stick to measure repeatedly the height of the whale’s chin off the floor, checking to see that it remained at 11 feet. His crew, eager for a chance to drive the taciturn man to distraction, each day added daubs of glue to the end of the stick, which would pick up bits of sawdust and other debris and had the effect of lengthening the stick a little at a time – and offering the impression that the whale was in fact losing altitude. Barton was reportedly hysterical by the time the museum opened its doors to the public.

Image Credit: Courtesy American Museum of Natural History

The 94-foot, 21,000-lb model of a female blue whale has been restored to the Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Whether Barton ever discovered the trick is not part of the public record, but the model of the female blue whale, which is 94 feet long and represents the largest animal ever to exist, has been restored and hangs again from the ceiling of the Hall of Ocean Life, its big blue chin once again measuring 11 feet from the floor. The blue whale, built of fiberglass and polyurethane, was based on an actual whale specimen found in 1925. As part of the remodeling of the hall, the whale model was reshaped to reflect the latest research on blue whales. The bulging eyes were streamlined and the tail trimmed. Twenty-five gallons of fresh paint were then applied.

The Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, named for contributors Irma and Paul Milstein, features updated dioramas of coral reefs, dolphins, seals, sharks and bony fishes. Unlike the museum of old, whose dusty exhibits and dark halls were more eerie than enticing, the American Museum of Natural History has been completely renovated over the last decade, under the direction of President Ellen Futter, and features an updated Hayden Planetarium and numerous dazzling displays that incorporate the latest technology and scientific research. The Hall of Ocean Life reopened on May 17.

Numerous sea life dioramas that surround the hall have been restored.

By Ocean Navigator