Shifting Giants

Dippy, the iconic cast of a diplodocus skeleton that has inhabited Natural History Museum’s Hintze Hall for over a century, has been replaced by the sinuous curve of a blue whale skeleton diving from the ceiling.

The decision has been a contentious one, leaving many long-time visitors to the museum feeling bereft of their favourite childhood dinosaur (which, incidentally, has certainly not been there for the duration of the museum’s existence). But critics should re-examine what message the flagship specimen at somewhere like the NHM conveys. Size was certainly not the only consideration for choosing the blue whale. Rather, the creature offers a paradox of spectacular bulk and precipitous vulnerability.

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We have always used animals as symbols of our relationships with nature, especially large, striking ones. Our relationship with the seas has also been an especially complex one. The oceans are inaccessibile and have played many different and shifting roles. The ways that we have characterised some of the most extraordinary inhabitants of the seas, such as whales and other large marine animals, has changed in tandem.

Looking at the way that large marine mammals such as walruses, whales and dolphins (though they were classed as giant fish at the time) were portrayed in early modern Europe, can tell us a lot about historical relationships with the seas, at a time when they had a revolutionary role in European culture.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ocean exploration opened up new realms, pushing the boundaries of the terrestrial unknown ever further into the distance. The seas offered new opportunities: trade routes with distant lands or rich hunting and fishing stocks. The waters themselves remained treacherous and mysterious, replete with myriad sea-beasts

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Detail from Abraham Ortelius map, Islandia (1590)

The contemporary images of vast marine animals were not formed in simple ways, they were drawn from a variety of sources, including classical texts, common superstitions, Christian doctrine, the practical knowledge gained by hunters, and the body parts traded through Northern European markets. They resulted in images of creatures with ambivalent natures, both terrifying and bountiful, just like the seas from which they came. For example, coast-dwellers flocked, in fear and amazement, to beached whale carcasses with their grotesquely distended members. Yet these mountains of flesh were rapidly dismantled into blubber, meat and bone, to fuel communities for months.

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Woodcut from Olaus Manus’s History de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555)

Marine giants were often depicted in political commentaries and pamphlets as ill-omens, said to be allied with the Devil in Christian texts. They appeared on maps as monstrous beasts cavorting in unknown seas. There were, however, flourishing European markets in blubber, skin, bone and flesh from seals, walruses and cetaceans – products often marketed as possessing quasi-magical properties.

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Jacob Matham’s print of a beached whale (1601)

We still have complex relationships with whales and their ilk: they are fabulous wonders of the oceans that have also become the gigantic symbols for anthropogenic damage to ocean ecosystems. They are no longer acceptable sources of raw materials, but beautiful and elusive images of what we might lose through our own actions. A stranding is no longer a bounty but a tragedy.

The NHM’s new flagship and accompanying exhibition signals a commitment to it’s shifting identity as a museum of a nature-filled future, rather than simply the lost wealth of nature’s history. The name of the whale, Hope, makes this shift abundantly clear. And as Hope dives down in her skeletal glory to greet visitors to the museum, she might cause them to think about the crucial role we play in the global ecosystem in a way they have not before.

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Brechth rose

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