Cheryl, Arianna and Lorraine in the pop-up conservation studio

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Blue whale conservation team wins prestigious award

The conservators preparing the Museum's blue whale skeleton for its move into Hintze Hall have received a prize for their contribution to the public's understanding of conservation.

Lorraine Cornish, Arianna Bernucci and Cheryl Lynn were chosen by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) to receive the 2016 IIC Keck Award.

The award recognises the many ways the conservators have engaged with the public as they ready the 4.5-tonne skeleton for its new home.

Since conservation began in September 2015, the team has shared insights into their project through blogs, videos and social media posts, as well as in person at their pop-up conservation studio in the Museum's Darwin Centre.

'We're thrilled that we've been chosen to receive the Keck Award,' says Cornish.

'Moving the blue whale has been a complex and challenging project, but sharing it with the public has been tremendously rewarding.

'We hope that this glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes will leave visitors with an even stronger connection to the whale when they finally see it in Hintze Hall next year.'

Conservators at work in the pop-up studio

Visitors to the Museum can see conservators at work in the pop-up studio in the Darwin Centre


Out into the open

The blue whale skeleton, the Museum's largest specimen, was on display in the Mammals Hall from 1934 until 2015. From summer 2017, however, it will be suspended from the ceiling in Hintze Hall.

The publicity surrounding this move offered the conservators a rare opportunity to promote the Museum's conservation efforts. Since January 2016 the team has been busy cleaning the bones and inspecting them for damage, bringing to light work that is normally carried out behind closed doors.

Much of this conservation is done in a pop-up studio in the Darwin Centre. There, Museum visitors can watch the conservators clean and repair parts of the skeleton including its mandibles (jaw bones), ribs, vertebrae and pectoral fins (flippers) - and even talk to the team directly.

This public approach to conservation is unusual, says Lynn. 'Conservation is usually quite a hidden thing. No one ever sees it - it just happens out of hours and in basements.'

But working differently has had clear benefits: 'The studio has made a big difference to how we engage with people,' says Bernucci. 'We've reached a wide range of audiences, and helped them understand what it is we do.

'I'd definitely use the pop-up studio again.'

Filming the conservation team next to the whale skeleton

The Museum's Broadcast Unit has produced a series of videos about the whale's relocation to Hintze Hall. Here they film as the first bones are removed from the metal framework.


Whale watching

In addition to the studio, a series of videos produced by the Museum's Broadcast Unit has followed the conservators as they work with Richard Sabin, Curator of Marine Mammals, to move and conserve the skeleton.

These have given viewers a glimpse into the challenges facing the team, from removing the fragile bones from an 80-year-old framework to finding a place to keep the whale's six-metre-long skull.

Alongside this, the conservators have also shared their work on social media - from Instagram photos to Museum blog posts.

'In effect, the whale has been accessible to the public all this time,' says Cornish. 'People can come along and see what we are doing in the pop-up lab, or look us up on social media.

'It's completely different to the way we usually prepare a specimen for display, but we've really enjoyed sharing the journey.'