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15th December 2020

In this blog, poet-in-residence Rebecca Drake takes you behind the scenes as conservators move Hull Maritime Museum’s rare whale and big fish collections for cleaning, and asks how we tell stories about them.

In the middle of the maritime museum, in a dimly-lit nook underneath the whaling gallery, is the skeleton of a juvenile Right Whale, or Greenland Whale. It is the first object I see whenever I visit the museum, entering the galleries through the back door because of the ongoing renovations. As I sign in, glancing at the clock, the whale waits just behind the table that is loaded with hand gel and face masks, lying behind a dismantled barrier and under a halo of harpoons.

The skeleton measures 40 feet, is 113 years old, and has been in the museum for 45 years. On the day I visit the museum the whale is getting ready to be moved by a team of specialist conservators to a cleaning facility in Shropshire. This is the last time I will see it looking as it does now, swimming in the shadows at the bottom of the museum.

Rebecca Drake And Robin Diaper By The Right Whale
Rebecca Drake And Robin Diaper By The Right Whale

At first glance, the whale looks extra-terrestrial, more like a creature that has swum out from the Alien film franchise than a creature that shares the same earth as we do. But then less is known about the ocean than is known about space, and in a way I really am standing face-to-face with an alien creature. It takes me a minute to recognise the whale’s face. The eyes, or rather the eye sockets, are low down at the corners of what could be called a smile. But of course there are no teeth to indicate where its mouth is, as the baleen (the sheets of hard material that a whale has in place of teeth, which it uses to filter food from the water) has long since been removed.

Baleen
A bundle of whale bone / baleen bristles, red, tied with blue string in four places

I look down the long spine, trying to count the number of vertebrae strung together, but I lose count in the shadows where the tail trails out of sight. I find the tip of the tail poking through a kind of tunnel that leads to the back of the museum, where it points to a taxidermized polar bear and a smaller polar bear skeleton next to that.

Climbing the bridge to the whaling gallery, I get a bird’s eye view of the whale. The number 57 is written in ink on several of the back bones, which are dusty and the colour of old paper. I think about how it might be possible to read the whale like one reads a book. Each crack in the bone could be the space between pages, and the whale, like a book, has a spine. And I think about how the whale is childlike. From up here its curved back looks small, reminding me of a kid attempting a mushroom float in a swimming lesson but not quite managing to hold the shape. It seems fragile, for such a large creature.

I wonder how the whale got here. I want to know how a living creature, with its own culture and language, becomes an exhibit gathering dust and in need of a good clean. The whale was caught on a whaling voyage over a century ago, and it was taken apart, the bones cleaned before being put together again. Nigel, the conservator employed to clean the Right Whale, says cleaning a whale skeleton for display is a long and messy process. I ask what this process involves and am told it takes a large amount of horse dung and urine. The smell of urine is far better than the smell of the whale before it was cleaned. It has lost its smell, just like it seems to be misplaced, mounted on a metal frame over a coral-coloured carpet.

I want to think about how Hull’s Right Whale skeleton, as well as the narwhal, orca, minke, and other big fish skeletons in the Maritime Museum’s collections are no longer sea creatures but objects to which we attach different meaning.

I have tried to explore this question in a poem written during my residency, called Tuna Descending. This poem was written very spontaneously during my visit to the museum when the whales were being moved. I was lucky to be invited to sit in while a team of conservators and curators fished the skeleton of a tuna down from the ceiling, where the very large and very fragile fish had been hanging.

As I watched the delicate process, I tried to imagine the fish alive and swimming, perhaps trying to break free of its hangings.


Tuna Descending

in waves

from the blue dusk

ceiling from where

the fish wavers

like a flown kite:

its bony nubs and ridges arc

a shell

or a rope suspending;

its brief wish – to fly -

is inched,

winched,

down

and

down, where

the dorsal fin

waves again as the big fish sinks to the boot-scuffed coral

carpet.