The iconic blue whale model that hangs in the American Museum of Natural History is the institution’s crowning jewel—and one that needs to be shined every once in a while.
The 94-foot-long fiberglass and polyurethane replica is getting its annual cleaning this week; a process that takes one man, two days, and a whole lot of vacuum power. When we stopped by on Wednesday morning (September 7), Trenton Duerksen was hard at work vacuuming the layer of dust that had accumulated on the whale over the course of the year. While he was largely focused on the animal’s head at the time, the entire 21,000-pound model will eventually get the soft brush treatment.
Aside from the annual dusting, the blue whale also received some comprehensive surgery when the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life was renovated in 2003. While it’s been an awe-inspiring display since its installation in 1969, the replica has had its issues. It’s hard to believe, but during the time when the project was conceived and executed, few people had seen a blue whale (the first full-body photos of a live animal wouldn’t be taken until the mid-1970s), so specimens from whalers had to be used as models. That led to bulging eyes and other inaccuracies in the shape and color of the mammal.
"In 1969 we’d walked on the moon, but no one knew what a blue whale looked like," said Melanie Stiassny, Axelrod Research Curator in the Museum’s Department of Ichthyology (a.k.a. fishes).
All that and more was corrected during the early aughts renovation (which Stiassny oversaw), so now the giant blue whale just needs an occasional cleaning.
Duerksen is a first-time blue whale duster, and while it might seem like a pretty straightforward job, a previous cleaner told us the task requires strong shoulders and arms, and a good sense of spatial reasoning. Well worth the effort to keep a New York landmark—and what it symbolizes—shining bright.
"It’s a denizen of the open ocean, it brings the whole ocean together," Stiassny said. "And everything on the planet depends on the open ocean."
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