After enduring two terms of extensive 3D scanning, identifying, and cleaning, the bones of Knox’s whale skeleton are ready for one final dip: a dip into plasticizing pools of Butvar ethanol solution. Professor of Biology Nicholas Gidmark started the whale renovation project and has played an integral role in bringing the vision to life. While plasticizing is an important step of the restoration process, for those working on the whale since the beginning of the school year, this phase has been a long time coming.
Since receiving the specimen at the beginning of fall term, faculty and students from various disciplines have joined together to make progress towards hanging the whale skeleton in the renovated atrium of the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center by the hopeful deadline of Homecoming 2019. Senior Sam Arrez, who has enrolled in an independent study each term to work with the whale, has worked on each step of the process firsthand.
“There’s a lot of trial and error because there’s no one who wrote a book that’s like, ‘How to Put a Whale Together.’ What we started off with was the identifying, so essentially saying what bones are what in terms of the digits, what are the ribs, what are the vertebrate and the skull bones,” Arrez said.
After identifying bones, students worked towards creating a 3D model of the bones, then used apps to scan and edit the models.
When the scans were complete, the skeleton moved into the cleaning phase where algae and other residues were removed from the bones’ interiors.
“The cleaning process has probably taken the longest time, and that’s because it’s a lot of trial and error of the different chemicals we use, and how long do we soak or do we scrub,” said Arrez.
Upon deciding on protocols and tweaking different chemical recipes, the whale staff discovered a procedure which effectively cleaned all of the approximate 150 bones that make up the 55 foot skeleton.
“We usually soak them in a couple different solutions: ammonia, enzymes, peroxides and Biotex powder. One of the biggest parts of cleaning them is manual. We have to do it ourselves, so we’re in there with a toothbrush, a dental pick, inch-by-inch taking off all the grime and things on the whole body,” said Gidmark.
Moving towards the end of Spring Term, the team has completely repaired about a third of the bones. Once the bones have been cleaned, they are plasticized in a Butvar ethanol solution, intended to help fill porous openings and strengthen them for hanging.
“After [the bones] dry out, we have a plastic, a consolidant. We dissolve this plastic in ethanol, then either pour it on, paint it on or soak the bones in that solution,” Gidmark said.
Senior Jini John works closely with Professor of Art Andrea Ferrigno, who developed the repair recipes and processes. After plasticizing bones, they used a paraloid/acetone solution mixed with a microballoon powder to continue the restoration.
“Anything that’s still slightly damaged or porous-looking, we’ll fill that in with something called microballoons; it’s a paste we put together, and we basically rub that into all of the crevices we want to fill up. We still want to maintain the integrity of the bones so we can’t make everything fully smooth,” John said.
When this portion of the process is done, professors Ferrigno and Gidmark will fix any bones in need of larger repairs, as many are fragmented.
“We drill holes in the bone and set threaded rod. We glue those in, and then if you have a hole in two bones that need to come together, you can basically glue them together around that rod,” said Gidmark.
As a finishing touch, Ferrigno and John use another paraloid solution which is pigmented and applied to the bones, allowing them to create more consistency with coloration. John engages with biological and artistic disciplines during the finishing process.
“I think it’s good to have a knowledge of anatomy when you’re forming the bones,” John said. “I think the finishing step is mostly aesthetic purposes–you have to fill it in and make it look like a bone.”
Gidmark is enthusiastic toward the cross-campus collaboration and diversity of knowledge that this project has warranted. He emphasizes the necessity of a dedicated, consistent team required to pull off the whale restoration.
“By having this big crazy project that we do, we can bring a lot of people in and make the best of each other, which is really fun,” Gidmark said.