Museums and Heritage Awards 2014 – Award winners review: Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Once in a Whale - Highly Commended in the Restoration or Conservation category

The Once in a Whale project focused on the conservation treatment of seven articulated cetacean skeletal mounts. Five of these specimens have been suspended from the museum roof for the last 150 years. With constant UV radiation through the glass roof and temperature and humidity fluctuations, they were in great need of conservation treatment.

The project had two main objectives; to preserve the longevity of these display specimens but also to make them a more prominent feature of the museum, by improving their visual aesthetics and scientific accuracy. The planning and management of the project was crucial as the work could only be carried out within a 6-month window while the museum was closed for restoration of the glass roof.

Once they had been assessed and photographed, the work itself was divided into two main areas: cleaning and stabilization. With such tight time restrictions, research was undertaken into existing methods of cleaning bone and removing hardened natural oils. These oils were not only acidic in nature but had turned black and were ruining the visual quality of the specimens. With the assistance of the University of Bergen, methods were developed to clean the bone using diluted ammonia which removes the oils through the process of saponification. This method was very successful in removing the oils with no risk to the bone and the ammonia and water vapour evaporate entirely leaving no residues behind.

The next stage treatment involved re-articulation. Although the original wires had corroded, it was decided to keep with this method of articulation for two reasons. Firstly it is an active science collection so specimens need to be taken apart as required by researchers. Secondly, the positioning of the specimens in the museum means that they are exposed to high temperatures in summer months so alternatives such as epoxies would be unable to withstand the UV levels causing a safety risk to the specimens and visitors below.

Once conservation treatment was completed, it was decided that the specimens would benefit from repositioning to take advantage of the vast roof space. With new steel chains and clasps installed the specimens were put into size order all facing the same direction. They were then hoisted, with the largest specimen, the Northern Beaked Whale at the level of the upper gallery. This new positioning means the whales are now visible from all levels of the museum and draw the visitors’ eye up into the newly conserved roof space to highlight the work done there.

The project has positively impacted the museum in many ways; firstly, it raised the profile of conservation within the institution both internally and externally. Such a large scale project exposed staff members to conservation as a field, some for the first time. The use of social media, both through the blog ‘’ and the OUMNH Twitter account (@morethanadodo) helped to publicise our work and the museum. Public tours were also conducted around the work space giving visitors the chance to see the specimens up close and learn about conservation and why it’s so important for the longevity of these specimens.