Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria




Articulating the Whale

As is still the case today, changes to routine for taxidermy and preparation departments tend to come with chance events; perhaps the most dramatic being the stranding of a great whale.

Such an event occurred at Jan Juc in 1867 when an oversize (27.5m) Southern Right Whale washed ashore.

The opportunity to gain a dramatic new exhibit for the museum was irresistible. What remained of the carcass was rendered and the resulting skeleton masterfully articulated by William Kershaw. Such an undertaking would have dominated the efforts of several men for months, a significant investment for a relatively small and understaffed institution.

McCoy over-enthusiastically described the specimen as a species new to science, naming it Physalis grayi. Later the specimen was recognised as Balena australis (now renamed Eubalaena australis) and McCoy's new species sank into synonymy.1

Given the scale of the work and McCoy's perception of the scientific significance of his discovery, it is curious that Physalis grayi was not illustrated in the Prodromus. This may be due to the whale not being observed in life by McCoy or any of his artists.

McCoy proudly claimed this whale was 'the largest specimen articulated in any Museum'. On completion it was displayed in the open air at the rear of the old National Museum, in what is now a courtyard behind the current site of the University of Melbourne's Student Union building.

One of the Museum's first icons, the whale skeleton helped attract an impressive number of visitors from its installation in 1868 until the end of the century.


Articulated whale skeleton, Enbalaena australis outside the University museum.
Articulated whale skeleton, Enbalaena australis outside the University museum.


References

1RTM Pescott, Collections of a Century, National Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1954, p. 67.