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11th November 2020

‘There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales’

Moby-Dick, Chapter 102. Herman Melville, 1851.

And that is the core of my interest in Hull Maritime Museum. For me it is the Leviathanic Museum. Even if the fin-back that Herman Melville refers to is a blue whale now in store at the Natural History Museum, exchanged in a three way swap for the juvenile right whale from the coast of New York that lay surrounded by the tools for its destruction in the Whaling Gallery.

The Old Museum Entrance Opposite Queens Gardens
The Old Museum Entrance Opposite Queens Gardens

I first visited the Whaling Gallery in 2010 and have been returning regularly ever since. As my interests and research needs evolved from the tools of the whaling trade to the whale skeletons and the superb selection of paintings of whale ships, I have returned with renewed curiosity.

Cut Marks On The Skull Of The Right Whale
Cut Marks On The Skull Of The Right Whale

This most recent trip was different. The Museum is closed for a much-needed refurbishment. The removal and conservation of the objects inside has begun and I was invited to visit whilst this was in progress. I was able to handle objects I would not normally be able to, including one of my favourite paintings in the collection depicting the Whaler Diana trapped in the ice in the moonlight. As the barriers were down around the right whale I (very carefully and with permission) skirted down the sides of the whale getting photos of the flippers and vertebra. I was also able to see the bones close-up including what appeared to be cut marks. The smaller whales had already been removed and it was very poignant seeing the chains hanging empty from the ceiling.

Empty Chains Where The Orca Skeleton Once Was
Empty Chains Where The Orca Skeleton Once Was

Whilst I was reacquainting myself with some of my favourite architectural details – the dolphins on the stairs, the harpoons on the floor tiles I was taken by the boxed up shop stock promising all sorts of hidden treats and ‘funny sea life figures’!

Boxed Up Shop Stock
The stock from the museum's shop is boxed up

The visit also gave me a chance to reflect on what would be lost in the redevelopment, particularly the hessian covered display structure that dominates the Whaling gallery. From the top of this I realised that the views of some of the delightful architectural details of the walls and ceilings would no longer be accessible in this way and so I made sure I took lots of reference photos for future use.

And what is future use? I’m an artist making work about Moby-Dick and British Arctic Whaling. I’m currently working up drawings from my photographs. I’ve already spotted that on the ceiling rose in the whaling gallery one of the decorations that I took to be repeating butterflies look much more like whale flukes! I’m not sure what they will turn into but it will be an interesting process that will keep me occupied until the museum reopens.

Whaling Gallery Ceiling Rose
Whaling gallery ceiling rose