Posts Tagged ‘whales’
September 24, 2013 | by Jason Z. Resnikoff
Currently on display in halls of the American Museum of Natural History are the complete skeletal remains of two sperm whales, a male and a female. They are the centerpieces of a much-advertised exhibit on whales that opened in March and will remain on view until January of next year.
I don’t know precisely what I hoped to encounter when I visited the exhibit earlier this month, but I knew it had something to do with Moby-Dick. I came with the high and ill-defined expectations of a pilgrimage, harboring vague notions that I might eye a peeking corner of the mystery embodied by Melville’s White Whale; I thought, deep in some inarticulate recess of my mind, that I might have the chance to live a dozen pages out of one of the best books I’ve ever read. I hoped I might come to better know it. I thought that I might see the whale.
The two sperm whale skeletons are suspended by metal wire from the ceiling of the museum’s fourth floor exhibition space. The male is slightly over fifty-eight feet long, the female much smaller. Seeing them was a shock; reduced to their bare frames they might as well be entirely different animals, so little do they answer to the sperm whale in its skin. They hang in undulating poses over a dais of shiny black plastic, appearing like a pair of monstrous wraiths cresting the surface of forsaken waters. Melville provides a warning of this physical dissonance in Moby-Dick—“For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.”—but that is poor preparation for just how alienating these skeletons can be. There is an unsettling ambiguity in their aspect, like the meeting of bird and snake. While pictures of the whale alive show a creature of curves, sleek fins, and a protuberant forehead, under the roof of the American Museum of Natural History and bereft of their flesh, these whales are assemblies of acute angles. Their peeked skulls, barbed with teeth, taper at the jaws to sharp beaks; looking up at the spiked vertebrae, you see a cutting ridge running along the spine that resolves itself decisively into the pointed tip of the tail. They are almost entirely devoid of the galumphing roundness that makes the living whale seem monumental, endearing, curiously childlike.
More surprising than their shape is their size. Reviewing the exhibit for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein was struck by their “immensity” and “commanding power.” He spoke of the show’s more diminutive attractions cowering in the “shadow of the chambers and curves of whalebone filling the high-ceilinged gallery.” “They loom,” he said, “over the video kiosks, wall panels and specimens, as if daring anything to come close.” That was not my experience at all. The exhibit has many attractions: video animations dramatizing the evolutionary history of whales; scrimshaw and ancient harpoons; Maori art and ambergris; an old ledger recording the events of a whaling voyage and an open copy of Moby-Dick, both under glass; a life-sized model of a Blue Whale’s heart, in and around which children climb like scavengers over deep-sea carrion. There is no want of diversion. Still, in the midst of all this edifying activity, I couldn’t help but think that the two sperm whale skeletons—even that belonging to the male, supposedly longer than a school bus—looked small. Read More »