Once-in-a-Generation Project

Dippy and the Blue Whale 

There has been a remarkable redevelopment at the Natural History Museum, London. For the first time in over 35 years, Dippy the Diplodocus has been replaced with a striking 25 metres long blue whale skeleton.

In October 2015 we began the removal of the 120 year-old Blue Whale skeleton, suspended from the ceiling in the Mammal Hall, to a temporary off-site location. Working alongside specialist scaffold contractors, our initial task was to devise intricate handling, packing and lifting methods to ensure the safe removal of the 130-piece historic skeleton.

The difficulty was emphasised by the mammal’s high position and location, as it was surrounded by other specimens who had to remain in place. In addition, this 4 tonne skeleton had not been removed from its location since the 1930s.

Reflecting on these challenges, our Head of Technical, Mark Hunt recalls: “Initially there was uncertainty on how the skeleton was going to be dismantled. Fortunately, our past experience with smaller skeletal items gave us an insight into what to expect from the task ahead.”

“Initially there was uncertainty on how the skeleton was going to be dismantled. Fortunately, our past experience with smaller skeletal items gave us an insight into what to expect from the task ahead.”

With the museum Conservation staff ready to go, our skilled technicians began the dismantling process with the tail. We unthreaded the 64 vertebrae along their supporting iron “spine” and gradually unhooked the existing suspension cables so more vertebrae could be removed.

From this challenging start, work then progressed up the spine. This was then followed by the removal of 32 ribs which had to be individually unbolted from an armature and taken away. Eventually the only piece remaining was the Skull, weighing an incredible 2 tonnes, approximately half the total weight of the entire skeleton.

Overcoming the Greatest Challenges
Given its size and weight, we knew from the outset that the skull was going to be the most difficult part to remove. To make things even more challenging, before it could be craned off the platform and down to gallery level, the skull had to be tilted through 90 degrees to get it past the suspension cables for specimens underneath. To achieve this, we had an articulated lifting frame made. This frame had to be created mostly of lightweight aluminium so as not to overload the scaffold platform or lifting beams. The skull was bolted to the frame and rotated through 90 degrees. We were not certain how the skull would react to this inversion, so this process was conducted slowly and with upmost care.

The End Result
Our preparation and packing proved a great success. The skeleton sat happily whilst we manoeuvred it past the suspension cables and lowered it into the horizontal position.

After being wrapped up, the Whale was ready to begin its journey out of the building. It was placed onto an external scaffold deck and lowered onto our vehicle at street level. At the end of this exciting day, we delivered the skeleton into temporary storage in preparation for its next phase.

The Blue Whale has now been re-installed in Hintze Hall. The impressive skeleton is suspended from the ceiling, resulting in a striking display over welcoming visitors.

Dismantling Dippy

After the successful temporary relocation of the Blue Whale, we were excited to be asked to work on the next stage of development in Hintze Hall.

Dippy the Diplodocus has been a star attraction at the Natural History Museum in London for more than a century. First introduced to the museum in 1905, it is one of 10 cast replicas in museums around the world, including Paris and Berlin. In 1979, the cast was moved Hintze Hall, where it remained until the present day.

A new chapter has now begun for Dippy, as the famous skeleton embarked on an incredible UK tour in spring 2018.

Preparation and Early Discoveries
Before our technicians could begin, we had to design a bespoke support scaffold structure that would allow us working access to the main body of the skeleton, whilst providing a lifting point for the heavier fragments.

Mark Hunt was Project Manager for this historic move with Technical Manager Ben Sparkes and Senior Technicians Phil Douglas, Jim Cooper and Anthony Madden. Together, they were responsible for the safe handling, packing and lifting of this iconic and significant exhibit.

Due to the age and fragility of the cast, our initial challenge was to assess the complete structure with the Conservation team. Primary findings confirmed that the plaster facsimile bones were thread through a long metal pole, which securely held the pieces in place.

Project Timeline
Each section was tagged in preparation before the first piece was dismantled from the pole. After this stage its spindling, winding tail was carefully removed from the main frame and placed into a large foam-protected crate. The main section of the spine was originally intended to be crated in small fragments; however, due to the prominence of the pole, larger pieces had to be removed. We lowered each section of the spine to the ground, ready to be assessed and wrapped.

Dismantling was progressively challenging for our team as the pieces increased in size and weight. After the skull and neck were both removed, we carefully detached the pubis, ischium, scapula, sternum and ribs. This was later was followed by each leg, the central vertebra and Ilium.
Timescales were constantly monitored, but since this was a once-in-a-generation project, it was difficult to confirm exactly how long the entire process would take, especially as each individual piece has to be assessed and cleaned prior to packing.

The final stage before packing could begin was to fill all the unique bone cavities with acid-free tissue and Tyvek. We then applied further tissue around each piece and positioned inside a conservation-quality acid free box, lined with foam. It was vital each section was secured with the greatest attention to detail, so a high level of patience and perseverance was required. In addition, detailed documentation for this process was paramount, so each piece was expertly recorded by the conservators before they were placed in the secure crates.

See what we’ve been handling,
moving and installing

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