Museums are a bit like icebergs—most of the real work goes on under the surface or behind the scenes. By 2017, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) hopes to make two incredible additions to its collection: the reassembled skeleton and preserved heart of a blue whale. But before the whale’s remains can go on display, museum staffers have got some very messy work to do.
The owner of the massive heart and bones washed up on the beach in Rocky Harbour, Canada in 2014. ROM staff and volunteers went to the beach, collected the whale’s remains, and took them back to the museum. To keep the heart from falling apart, they left it soaking in a steel tank full of formaldehyde.
“The reason why we tried to preserve it in the first place is it's kind of a mythological organ," ROM interim CEO Mark Engstrom told CBC News.
But a limp, pickled heart, even an enormous one, isn't much to look at. So the museum decided to send the massive organ to Germany for plastination.
The word plastination may sound familiar; it’s the same process used to preserve and prepare the human bodies used in the famous Body Worlds exhibition. In plastination, bodily fluids are replaced with a flexible silicone that helps support the structure of the surrounding tissues, thus allowing body parts to maintain their shape.
The whale’s heart will be preserved in Germany—but it had get there first.
So how do you ship a 400-pound lump of flesh? Very, very carefully. Six volunteers spent eight and a half hours carefully removing the heart from its tank, draining it of liquid, then painstakingly packing it to ensure the giant organ wouldn’t be exposed to mold or at risk of drying out during its trip. The finished product involved a forklift, a lot of tape, 12 garbage bags’ worth of packing peanuts, and a boatload of paperwork.
Because blue whales are endangered, mailing their body parts across the world requires a whole lot of documentation. The paperwork “took a lot longer than actually shipping the heart did,” technician Jacqueline Miller told the CBC.
The team’s hard work paid off. The whale heart arrived safely in Germany, and the plastination process will begin soon. In the meantime, ROM workers have turned their attention to cleaning the whale’s skeleton.
Header image courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum.