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When the Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life re-opened to the public in 2003, the newly renovated gallery was transformed: 14 dioramas, some first built in the 1930s, had been restored, and brand-new ecosystem displays highlighted the diversity of ocean habitats and the species that lived together within them.
The hall’s famous blue whale was renovated, too. Greeting visitors at the center of the vault-ceilinged space—at 29,000 square feet, an apt stand-in for the open ocean—the fiberglass model was made more anatomically accurate than before.
First constructed in the mid-1960s, based on photographs of a female blue whale that had been found dead in 1925, the blue whale model originally went on display in 1969. “Even though men had walked on the Moon, little was known about what blue whales looked like in their natural habitat,” says Axelrod Research Curator Melanie Stiassny, an ichthyologist, who served as lead curator for the 2003 renovation.
By 2001, Museum artists working on the renovation of the 94-foot, 21,000-pound model had many photographs and footage of live whales on which to base their work. They flattened the model’s once-overly bulging eyes, accurately redesigned the whale’s blowholes, and tapered the tail. Using about 25 gallons of cobalt and cerulean blue paint, the team also recolored and respotted the grayish blue whale.
Since whales are placental mammals—meaning that, like humans, they nourish their developing fetuses inside their bodies through an umbilical cord and bear live young that feed on mother’s milk—a belly button was added. If you stand beneath the model, you can see the navel about four-fifths of the way down the whale’s body, a reminder of just one of the inheritances humans share with this massive, mysterious mammal.
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Rotunda, our Member magazine.