Bone Room Meditations XII: Shelf Marks (Part I – Order Cetacea)

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

In October I visited the cetacean collection at the National Museum of Scotland.

Descending the stairs into the basement storage unit, it was immediately apparent that this would be no ordinary museum experience. Huge whale bones lay across the floor like so much dismantled fairground machinery. Many of them were painted grey, glossy oil oozing through the matt surface of the paint.

Jerry, the mammal curator, showed me the skull of the last right whale to be hunted from our shores (caught off St Kilda in 1916, he said, by Norwegian whalers based on Harris). The whale’s skull sat on the floor, its immense jaw describing a perfect sculptural arc, like some massive metal cradle. Crude, rusting attachments sprouted from the grey musky bone, relics of previous exhibition fixtures.

Next we examined the jaw of a sperm whale , caught in Indonesian waters, the whole thing polished like furniture. It truly was a fearsome sight – like some immense stone age weapon. The fearsome jaw of Moby Dick:

“So that in many cases such a panic did he finally strike, that few who by those rumours, at least, had heard of the White Whale, few of those hunters were willing to encounter the perils of his jaw”

Herman Melville MOBY DICK or The Whale

Perhaps to exorcise this terrible monster (the word cetacean comes from the Greek: Cetus, which means sea monster) a sailor had inscribed it with a delicate skrimshander featuring, on one side, a fine illustration of a living ‘Cachalot’ and on the other a drawing of the whaling ship that had carried back this prize to cooler waters.

Situated right next to this extraordinary specimen was the skull of another ‘Moby’. Found stranded on the North Sea coast , this was the whale that featured in Lucy Skear’s Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Modern in 2009. Such amazing mass, such a huge volume of latex-like, hard bone … oily to the touch, a greasy whale-oil residue still sitting on its surface. Layer upon layer of spongy growth was visible in the butter coloured cranium, truly humbling in comparison with my own diminutive head. The bone grew in complex, varied textures; in places like bark, in others like honeycomb, candle wax, flowstone or tufa … and it was warm and almost silky to the touch, more like hardened rubber than chill mineral.

Next, I wanted to see the Narwhal.

The Narwhal was situated in a sliding storage facility of the kind that has wheels to open it, like the wheels of a ship. When a number of these shelves are in motion, the wheels all spin with a ghostly independence. As the shelves parted, light spread onto the Narwhals tusks.

In the middle ages these beautiful, marble white, tapering, petrified ropes were considered to be a cure for melancholy. They were taken to be the horns of Unicorns.

There certainly was something magical about them … as if, by some charm, they had been turned to stone of an astonishing whiteness.

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