This month, our Long-finned Pilot Whale Skeleton will be fully articulated and put on display at Leeds City Museum. Here, curator Clare Brown tells the story behind the bones, and what we can learn from them.

I had a vague idea that there was a whale in our collection: it was in the back store of my memory and I hadn’t revisited it for ages. In about 2010 I was shifting around some boxes and came across a few with ‘whale’ written across them. I immediately dismissed these as unidentified bones as there was no way you could fit a whale into about three boxes. A couple of years later I was back up in the scissor-lift, in one of the more inaccessible areas of our store, came across them again and opened up the boxes.

A photograph of the inside of a cardboard box. There is a large section of vertebrae and some rib bones.

One of the boxes in which the whale skeleton was stored

We’re really pleased to be able to put our whale skeleton back on display at Leeds City Museum after a long absence. I haven’t been able to track down exactly when it stopped being displayed, but there’s no evidence of it being seen by the public since 1941: the year that a bomb fell on the museum on Park Row in Leeds city centre.

We have a photograph that was taken in roughly 1900 of the skeleton in the old Leeds City Museum on Park Row. It’s not the focus of the picture, unfortunately, but you can still make it out pretty well.

A black and white photograph of a gallery space with taxidermy in cases. In the middle is the skeleton of a giraffe and a whale.

The whale skeleton in the bottom left corner, in the old Leeds City Museum on Park Row in around 1900.

The whale’s official accession number is ‘1868.25’ which lead me to the old records of incoming objects that the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society kept in the 19th century. It records the arrival of the whale, which was part of a pod of animals from Leith in Scotland.

Our poor whale suffered a terrible death. Its pod was stranded by local fishermen and then bludgeoned, shot or hacked to death. Newspapers from all over the country record the incident in 1867 and it makes for really grim reading. We think our whale was probably shot as there is still a piece of metal – probably lead – embedded in the hole in the back of his skull.

A photograph of a whale skull. There is a large hole in the middle.

The skull of the whale skeleton. This whale was probably shot, as there is still a piece of metal embedded in the hole in the back of his skull.

Times, thankfully, have changed and whale hunting is now considered abhorrent in many cultures. Whaling was finally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 as it was generally accepted it was a cruel and unnecessary activity. Most places no longer use these mammals for oil, blubber and meat and many species of whale are in decline.

Some places, like the Faroe Isles, still herd and kill pods of Long-finned Pilot Whales in their waters. It is part of their long heritage, and it still turns the sea completely red with all the blood.

Our skeleton, with its new articulation, a newly commissioned poem and new interpretation, tells the story of how we have changed as a nation. It also looks at the amazing way that whales are adapted to their marine habitat and gives visitors a great opportunity to get close to one of these amazing creatures.

Nigel Larkin, the museum conservator working on the skeleton, has done a fantastic job and our boxes of bones have been transformed: we were missing a shoulder blade so a 3D printed model (scanned from the other blade) has been painted to fit in with the skeleton. See if you can spot which one it is when you visit the whale at Leeds City Museum. The whole skeleton has been re-articulated and conserved and will be a wonderful addition to Leeds City Museum.

We’re really grateful to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (who are celebrating their 200th anniversary this year) and the Friends of Leeds City Museums for their generous help in completing this project.

By Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science