The Vault

Photos Show How the American Museum of Natural History Made Its Blue Whale Swim

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These images show staff and contractors at the American Museum of Natural History in the late 1960s, constructing, mounting, and hanging the 94-foot fiberglass-and-polyurethane blue whale model that now dominates the institution’s Hall of Ocean Life.

In his history of the museum’s 60-year quest to perfect its whale model, historian Michael Rossi writes that the museum made the decision to overhaul its old blue whale in the early 1960s. The former inhabitant of the Hall of Ocean Life, a papier-mâché blue whale model that was hung in the early 20th century, had begun to look outdated.

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The museum wanted something that would awe visitors. As Alfred E. Parr, oceanographer and past director of the AMNH, wrote, the planners wanted to “create the illusion of having joined the whale in its own domain.”

Importantly for the dramatic effect that the museum hoped to inspire, the new blue whale could hang without the use of wires, “its tremendous bulk,” Rossi writes, “cantilevered in space from the point where its curved back gently grazed the ceiling.”

These photographs show the process of connecting the giant model to the building’s armature. (Stuart Miller recently wrote about the engineering behind the whale in the New York Times, and his explanation offers even more clarity.) 

The exhibit was finally open to the public in 1969, the AMNH’s centennial year.

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The AMNH has just opened up an expanded version of its digital collections site, including many other photos from the museum’s history.

Museum staff covering model of whale, Hall of Ocean Life, 1968.

American Museum of Natural History Library.

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Raising and welding tail section of whale model, Hall of Ocean Life, 1968.

American Museum of Natural History Library.

Installing whale model, Hall of Ocean Life, 1968.

American Museum of Natural History Library.

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Suspending model of whale from ceiling, Hall of Ocean Life, 1968

American Museum of Natural History Library.

Preparation of whale model for Hall of Ocean Life, 1969.

American Museum of Natural History Library.

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Museum staff viewing suspended whale model, Hall of Ocean Life, 1969.

American Museum of Natural History Library.

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