Whale skeleton in Phelps Science Center

August 3, 2017
Whale skeleton hanging in Phelps Science Center.

Looking up at the whale skeleton from the ground floor of Phelps Science Center.

Design: from rex to whale

In designing the Phelps Science Center’s atrium to accommodate an animal skeleton, the architect originally imagined a full-size model of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

As luck would have it, the Science Department was able to get on a waiting list with Dave Tayor, a Massachusetts-based biology teacher who, as part of his curriculum, recovers and prepares whale skeletons for display in museums.

A whale's skeleton sits outside of the Phelps Science Center


In May 2000, Science Instructor Townley Chisholm (above right) received a call that the body of a 2-year-old male humpback had washed ashore in Cape Cod.

A team from Phillips Exeter works to process a beached whale

The recovery team, which included Chisholm and fellow Science Instructors Chris Matlack (then chair of the department), Sydney Goddard, and Rich Aaronian; Dr. Tom French of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for Massachusetts; and Exeter seniors Freddy Kullman and Reed Macy, spent an entire day removing the flesh and fat from the carcass with giant flensing hooks.

Freddy Kullman and Reed Macy remove flesh and fat from the whale carcass

Unusual cleaning process

After the flesh was removed from the bones, the recovery team separated, photographed and buried the skeleton in beds of horse manure as part of a cleaning process that utilizes maggots and bacteria.

A dump truck drops manure on top of the buried whale carcass

It took nearly six truckloads of manure and four months of decomposition for the bones to be cleaned.

A woman works to clean the whale's skeleton

Bleaching and articulating

Once ready, the bones were brought to the Academy and stored in the Facilities garage, which offered appropriate open space. Two biologists from the College of the Atlantic, located in Bar Harbor, Maine, led the articulation process. PEA students from Aaronian’s Physiology class helped bleach the bones with hydrogen peroxide and toothbrushes.

A worker uses a forklift to move the whale's skeleton into the Phelps Science Center

Into the building it goes

The skeleton was completed in several sections, each designed to be no wider than the skull (about 5 feet across), in order to fit through the doorways of Phelps Science Center.

Workers prepare to transport the whale's skeleton

A reinforcing steel rod runs through each vertebra of the 30-foot, fully articulated skeleton. Adult male humpbacks can grow to 45 feet.

Suspending in the atrium

A worker prepares the suspend the whale's skeleton from the ceiling

Gerry Hill in the Facilities Department constructed metal frames to transport the skeleton sections to the science center, where they were hoisted on small hydraulic lifts and suspended from poles reinforced by girders and hung from the ceiling.

Workers fashion a support system to suspend the whale's skeleton


Editor's note: This first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.