How One Whale Made It to the Top

After months of anticipation, planning and building, the big day finally arrived. I was on site early so as not to miss a moment, and as the 18-wheeler carrying Tū Hononga’s skull rounded the corner, the excitement started bubbling over.

A man blows into the end of a spiral shell.
Te Papa's conservation manager, Shane James, begins the Karakia by blowing into a Pukaea (kind of a Māori trumpet). Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature

Tū Hononga (meaning “the connection”) is a male sperm whale whose entire skeleton will be displayed alongside the skeleton of a female, called Hinewainui, in the soon-to-open Whales Tohorā exhibition. Because Tū Hononga’s skull and jaw are so big, they are not able to get into the fourth-floor gallery by elevator. Another specimen and two panels are also too large. In order to get these enormous items in the front doors, through the atrium and into position on the fourth floor, the exhibition team, facilities department and numerous contractors had to remove doors, protect floors and build (from scratch) two complete hoisting systems.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has exhibited many travelling shows from all over the world, but never has this much preparation gone into a temporary exhibition.

A team of exhibition specialists from New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa museum travel to every venue with the Whales Tohorā exhibition. They are also instrumental in the installation. I was honoured to be among the few who were there to witness the Karakia—a traditional Māori incantation—performed by a collection manager from Te Papa before the specimens were moved off the truck. Karakia are ceremoniously used to ensure a favourable outcome of important undertakings.

View of the vestibule, full of scaffolding, people and whale skull.
The skull was lifted, inch by inch, over each step in the museum's vestibule. Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature
The large end of the skull fills the doorway.
The skull only just passed through the doorway, even though the doors and frame had been removed. There was a collective sigh of relief once Tū Hononga's skull was inside the building. Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature

Each item was then carefully lifted out of the moving truck, wheeled through a heated tent and through the front doors of the museum. Getting it up the first set of stairs required a manual hoist system, which was rigged to scaffolding. The latter was custom-built to fit into the small, narrow vestibule at the main entrance.

As the skull inched its way up the stairs, a dozen onlookers stood watching, uncertain whether the skull—wrapped in layers of insulation and a protective framework, and sitting upon a rolling platform—would pass through the doorway. In fact, it was the stairs that would trip up the process: the hoisting chains ran out a mere inch before the wheels of the platform could clear the top step. A forklift was enlisted to bring it up the extra inch, but they couldn’t find the right angle to approach the bottom of the platform without causing damage. Eventually the contractors used specialized chain blocks to winch the chains by hand, which gave the platform just enough lift to clear the top step.

Tū Hononga’s skull was the first item into the building, but it wouldn’t be hoisted until his jaw, a skeleton of a pygmy right whale, and two oversized panels were also brought into the building using the same process. Those items passed through rather uneventfully, the hoisting team having had the first tough experience to draw upon. Each item was then rolled up the ramp leading to the atrium, around the reception desk and into position in front of the grand staircase. Another team of riggers was waiting there to attach, balance, secure and eventually hoist the items up to the fourth floor.

The whale skull being lifted to the fourth floor.
Sperm whales (Physeter catodon) have been known to dive as deep as 3 km, but flying? This must be a first! Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature
View from the atrium floor to the fourth floor, including a large crate waiting to be lifted.
This way up ↑. Tū Hononga's jaw gets a lift from the first to the fourth floor. Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature

The great male sperm whale skull, which weighs about 795 kg (1,750 lb.), was the first item into the building, but the last to be hoisted to the fourth floor. The anticipation was palpable.

As the final moments unfolded, many were already patting themselves on the back for a job well done, when a long, loud crunch sounded throughout the atrium (and believe me, that place echoes!). I did not need to look around to confirm: I already knew that all eyes were riveted on the skull, balanced on the edge of the fourth floor, hanging over the edge of a four-storey drop.

The whale skull reaches the level of the fourth floor.
This is the worst possible moment for something to go wrong... and this is the moment when we heard a painfully loud crack! Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature

I still don’t know what the noise was, or how anyone else felt in that moment, because seconds later the skull was carefully and proudly being pulled onto the floor and into the gallery.

In those last moments of Tū Hononga’s journey to the top, I wondered if his spirit was pleased to see how many minds, hands and hearts had to come together to be able to display him to our visitors. Through this journey he exemplifies his given name: the connection.