The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge’s connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, W is for Whale: the journey of one iconic whale in particular, from a Sussex beach to pride of place in the Museum of Zoology.

It was probably brought into the world in the cold regions – the Arctic Seas – some time after the Great Flood

Poster from 1896

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On 13 November 1865 a dead finback whale was washed up on the shingle at Norman’s Bay, close to Pevensey in Sussex. The carcass was stripped of its flesh and the skeleton moved from the beach to a nearby cricket field. An estimated 40,000 people came to see it; a small station was even built to cater for visitors arriving by rail.

In Sussex, the whale washed up at Norman’s Bay is the ‘Pevensey whale’. In Cambridge, the same creature is synonymous with the Museum of Zoology, which acquired the whale in 1866 and has displayed it almost without a break since 1896. Thought to be the largest skeleton of a finback whale on display in the world, it measures around 70 feet from nose to tail and weighs two tonnes.

The whale skeleton is such a Cambridge landmark that since June 2015 it has even had its own twitter account @whale_whispers. Not surprisingly, an ambitious project to re-develop the Zoology Museum puts this iconic creature at the centre of the stories about the natural world told by displays of thousands of items – including objects collected by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Alfred Newton.

Visitors to the newly-built museum (which will open in autumn 2016) will enter a glass hall where the whale will take pride of place. Suspended in an atrium, it will be surrounded by skeletons of five smaller whale species. A sound installation of ‘ocean songs’ performed by local groups, blended with whale calls recorded out at sea, will provide a backdrop. A display will tell the history of the whale, complete with letters about its purchase, for the first time.

To allow the museum to be rebuilt, the whale skeleton was dissembled and stored in various locations within one of Cambridge’s main teaching and research sites. A crane lifted the animal’s skull to a safe place where a weather-proof shed was built around it.

The existence of the finback whale at the centre of a university museum is tribute to the farsightedness of William Henry Flower, conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, who rushed to the south coast to see the dead giant a few days after it was washed up.

Flower quickly wrote to John Willis Clark at Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology to suggest that he acquired it. More than a year passed, however, before the whale was transported to Cambridge. It changed hands several times and was put on display at Hastings cricket ground.

Visitors who paid to see it were treated to music played by a band standing between its jaws and, on one occasion, the sight of 68 children standing in its mouth.

A poster speculated in a fanciful vein about the whale’s origins: “It was probably brought into the world in the cold regions – the Arctic Seas – some time after the Great Flood, where it has sported about, catching ‘small fry’, and otherwise amusing itself, probably for centuries.”

In Cambridge, the whale was for more than 80 years suspended high up inside the main gallery of the original Zoology Museum. It then spent a period in storage. When, in 1996, the museum received a major make-over, it was moved to a balcony above the main museum entrance.

Bringing the finback whale skeleton into the heart of the refurbished museum will give it new prominence. The museum is scheduled to re-open in autumn 2016.

Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: X is for an animal that became a must-have item in 15th-century 'cabinets of curiosities', and which has several surprising physiological traits.

Have you missed the series so far? Catch up on Medium here.

Inset images: Close-up of the skeletal finback (Museum of Zoology); Artist's impression of the finback whale's new place in the Museum of Zoology (Museum of Zoology); William Henry Flower’s letter to John Willis Clark (Museum of Zoology); The finback whale skeleton in the old Museum of Zoology (Museum of Zoology).


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