It was apparent that the complete but darkened skeleton of a small whale at the Museum of Human and Comparative Anatomy (run by the First Faculty of Medicine’s Institute of Anatomy) would eventually fall apart. But restorers achieved something remarkable: returning the 350 kilo skeleton – one of only two in the Czech Republic – to its former glory, while also preserving soft tissue. The team was headed by anthropologist and anatomist Andrej Shbat.
News in late 2020 that restorers had saved the complete skeleton of a small whale, property of the university since the 19th century, caused something of a splash! Not only was the entire skeleton fixed, members of the team managed to save soft tissues of the lumbar spine and skin on the whale’s flippers. Even the os hyoideum - a U-shaped bone at the base of the tongue – was properly restored. The exhibit is one-of-a-kind, says Andrej Shbat, who has cared for the museum collection for more than nine years.
What kind of a whale is it, hanging over our heads?
There are two possibilities that are most likely: either it is a Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) or it is an Antarctic Minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis). There is also a possibility it could also be a Bryde’s whale. During the restoration process we took samples of both soft and hard tissues and asked colleagues at the Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Karlov to conduct DNA analysis. We expect to know the results in June.
The skeleton wasn’t in very good shape, was it?
It is likely that at the time they didn’t have the tools for proper conservation; you could say, tongue-in-cheek, that they didn’t have a pot “big enough” to simmer the bones as they did with a Fin whale at the National Museum. It appears that they carved as much of the carcass off the bone as they could and hoped any remaining strips dried out. In the heat of the room, fat began to drip from the exhibit so then the bones had to be conserved. But the result was a blackened skeleton from which fat continued to drip. You can still see the stains on the floor today and they are impossible to remove. Whale blubber was used, after all, to make a sealant used to coat the hull of boats – as a material it was very effective.
Were you able to discover more about how this specimen made it to the Czech lands?
It was probably in the second half of the 19th century but may have arrived even earlier. Unfortunately, part of the university archive was destroyed at the end of WWII so we don’t have precise information any longer. The skeleton, like the institute where it is housed, were both damaged by broken glass in a blast wave during the bombing of Prague.
When did the exhibit come into your care?
Almost at once after joining the faculty. I had worked at the Ministry of Culture and was aware of fears about the future of the exhibit. As a naturalist, the subject was right in my wheelhouse. The head of the Institute of Anatomy, Professor Smetana, suggested I could take care of the exhibit and I was able to get the specimen into the central registry of collections. That opened the door to financial support for things such as restoration, security and so on. With the support of a grant from the Ministry of Culture, I reached out to conservationists from the Silesian Museum in Opava, to the Department of Chemical Technology of Monument Conservation from UCT Prague, and the company Prudencia 97. Thankfully, the project was a success.
It wasn’t easy, I am sure…
Well, unlike the whale at the National Museum, we took ours apart down to the last bone. But don’t ask me how many bones there were – there were enough! Including the whale’s spinal discs and the ends of its flippers, which are real. Of course, I had to learn a lot about the whale’s anatomy. Previously, some of the ribs were in the wrong order, so we corrected that. We also set the flippers in a more natural position than they had been before… I am certain the whale will now survive for many years to come.
Thanks to sponsors, we were also able to implement a better hanging method, allowing for a better display. A dolphin that keeps the whale company, received a similar upgrade in terms of hanging apparatus. Don’t forget we are a comparative museum: in the whale and dolphin exhibit you can view and compare how their lower extremities developed and adapted, compared to humans. The whale is related to the hippo after all, and in the exhibit we preserved what are the hints of former hind limbs - lower extremities that were stunted and lost when the animals returned to the water.
This project is complete but is it true that many remain?
The building housing the museum is 150 years old and its educational collection (focusing on humans, primates and other vertebrates as well as invertebrates) is one of the most extensive in Europe. It is used by students of medicine and science at Charles University and also students from high schools both here and from abroad. A lot of the exhibits can be viewed on European Museum Night. A full renovation is unavoidable but the results will be worth it, allowing us to catch up with the latest trends.
A whale named Ilga. Wondering how she got her name? It’s an acronym for Illegal Large (or Long) Girl from the Atlantic Ocean.
|Andrej Shbat, Ph. D.|
|Andrej Shbat studied anthropology at the Faculty of Science at Masaryk University in Brno, before earning a doctorate at Charles University. He is an expert in physical and forensic anthropology. He teaches anatomy at the First Faculty of Medicine at Charles University where he is an expert assistant to med students and students of dentistry. He is in charge of the collection at the Institute of Anatomy’s Museum of Human and Comparative Anatomy at the First Faculty of Medicine at Charles University.|