Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library
Back in 1968, the staff and contractors at the American Museum of Natural History got to constructing, mounting, and finally hanging the 94-foot fiberglass-and-polyurethane blue whale model that’s become an icon of the museum. Though the hulking whale looks like it’s been hanging from the Hall of Ocean Life ceilings since the museum’s opening, it’s actually the second version of the installation. According to Slate, the museum made the decision in the early 1960s to overhaul a paper-mâché model hung in the early 20th century because it looked outdated. The replacement was set to be nothing less than dramatic: a display to “create the illusion of having joined the whale in its own domain,” as As Alfred E. Parr, oceanographer and past director of the AMNH, wrote at the time.
To awe museum visitors, the new whale was set to hang without the use of wires–essentially cantilevered in a way that the whale’s back would nearly graze the ceiling. Just behind the whale, false skylights were backlit with blue bulbs, and projectors and mirrors were added to give the impression you’re looking out of the ocean at the sky.
The photos show the process of connecting the giant model to the building’s armature. So how, exactly, did they get that 21,000-pound creature to hang without falling? This article in the New York Times breaks it down, reporting that “inside the foam and fiberglass model is an iron frame, which connects to a large cylindrical steel pipe 16 inches in diameter that extends up into the roof.” The steel pipe has more steel bars that connect to trusses in the room.
The exhibit was opened to the public in 1969, the museum’s centennial year. It was then renovated in 2003 to correct some inaccuracies about the whale–it’s now bluer, with eyes that don’t bulge. And every year, the whale gets a bath. You can see a video of that amazing process right here.
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Photos courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library
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