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Whale bones and laser beams 

Share our journey as we create almost 60 exhibitions and displays for the new Canterbury Museum.

How do you hang a 4.6-tonne blue whale skeleton from the ceiling? Canterbury Museum staff are deploying laser beams and a high-tech 3D scanning system to help answer that question.

Matt Zeleny of Camosun College in Canada scanning a blue whale verterbrae at Canterbury Museum.

The Museum’s blue whale skeleton will be suspended in spectacular fashion in the atrium of the new building when it opens in 2028. The whale, which is the largest skeleton in any museum collection in the world, will be back on public display for the first time since 1993.

To help work out how to suspend the 27-metre whale safely and in a realistic pose, Canterbury Museum has drafted in Canadian experts to capture a three-dimensional scan of every one of the nearly 200 bones in the skeleton.

A computer rendering of how the blue whale might look suspended in the foyer of the new Canterbury Museum.

Museum Senior Curator Natural History Dr Paul Scofield said the computer scans are essential to work out how to hang the skeleton.

“The blue whale is one of the iconic objects in Canterbury Museum and is something we are really looking forward to displaying again,” he said.

“We will take these scans and model them in 3D software to design an armature which enables us to display the entire skeleton safely and in a pose that is very close to how the whale would be in real life.”

Matt Zeleny and Museum Senior Exhibitions Preparator Sebastian Denize with the whale mandible and skull.

Every bone has also been weighed so the architects and engineers can make sure it is hung safely.

The skeleton is unique in the world, Paul said. “We believe that one of the lower mandibles/jaw bones may be the largest single animal bone in a museum collection and it may be the biggest that has ever existed.”

Matt Zeleny of Camosun College in Canada has scanned whale skeletons for museums all over the world. He used lasers and a computer tracking system to map the surface contours and create a three-dimensional model of each bone in the Museum’s whale skeleton. Matt is working with Canadian company Cetacea Contracting, who are world renowned for creating realistic installations of marine mammals.

Museum Senior Curator Paul Scofield said the mandible bone may be the largest bone in any museum collection.

The blue whale has been part of the Museum collection for well over 100 years. It was found dead on a beach near Ōkārito on Te Tai Poutini/the West Coast in February 1908. The skeleton first went on display at the Museum in March 1909. It remained on display until 1973, when it was put into storage for 3 years and then displayed in the Garden Court until 1993. When the Garden Court was built over there was no suitable place to display the skeleton and so it was put into storage in 1994.

Paul said the return of the skeleton will be an awe-inspiring sight.

“It is going to be something where you walk in the door, and you think: Oh my goodness. There will be an amazing whale skeleton right in front of you. It will be a real showstopper.”

A concept drawing of how the whale might be posed in the new Museum.
The skull of the blue whale weighs about a tonne.