Richard Robinson

The skeleton crew

Old bones are a staple of museum collections, but only a handful of people in New Zealand have the skills to prepare them for display. Recovering the skeleton of a large animal—rotting it down, preparing, cleaning and articulating it—is a long and demanding journey that only the most dedicated pursue.

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

“This bone,” says Canterbury Museum senior curator Paul Scofield, “is the largest of any animal that’s ever existed.” He’s standing amid a pile of ivory-coloured slabs that look like the leftovers of some behemoth’s feast. The bone in question is the long, curved lower jaw of a blue whale, and it is wrapped in plastic and labelled “418 kilograms”. It’s the weight of a polar bear.

From one end of the room to the other lie the rest of the whale pieces. Spinal vertebrae so wide you could eat your dinner off them. Ribs as long as cars. The enormous skull is upended, snout pointing towards the ceiling.

Professor Paul Scofield, Senior Curator Natural of History at the Canterbury Museum with the historic Okarito blue whale skeleton.

This blue whale was found on a beach near Okarito, on the West Coast, and recovered in 1908 by Edgar Stead, an ornithologist. Stead and his team spent a month flensing, cleaning and preparing the 26.5-metre-long skeleton. It was then shipped to Lyttelton, and carried by horse and cart over the Port Hills to Canterbury Museum, which had acquired it for the princely sum of £500. Once at the museum, the bones were articulated in a covered courtyard outside the building. Old railway iron secured each vertebra in place, threaded through holes drilled in the skeleton.

More than a century later, this blue whale is still believed to be the largest skeleton in any collection in the world. Generations of Canterbury children have stood in awe before her, including me. The sweeping curve of her mighty mandibles, the cavernous hall formed by her ribcage—these are part of the fabric of my childhood, and fostered a fascination with the natural world that remains with me today.

After almost 90 years of being exposed to the elements, and with sparrows nesting inside her skull, the blue whale was brought in from the cold in 1994 for major conservation work. The plan was to rearticulate her in a dramatic swimming pose. In order to get the 150-tonne skeleton inside, the roof of part of the museum had to be removed; a crane then lowered the bones through the hole, and a gantry rail was constructed in the ceiling to move the bones around the room.

The bones were thoroughly cleaned, as oil was still leaching from them. The holes in the vertebrae were repaired so expertly that they are now invisible.

Then, work stalled. The giant skeleton has been stranded out of sight for 26 years. Reinstating her to public view is still the intention, but the museum is awaiting a long-planned renovation. “It would be unusual for us not to get rung once a month and have someone ask, ‘Where’s the whale?’” says Scofield.

Animal skeletons haven’t always been the museum centrepieces that they are today. “In the 1970s, dinosaurs were seriously uncool,” says Scofield. But that’s all changed in the past two decades. Bones are back in vogue.

Finding the few people in the world who know how to bring them back to life, however, is another story.

[Chapter Break]

On a bush-clad section high above Lyttelton, clouds of steam rise on the late-autumn air, full of the thick, sweet scent of warm whalebone. Judith Streat is hard at work with a scrubbing brush, cleaning the skeleton of a Shepherd’s beaked whale in a wood-fired outdoor bathtub.

Bones such as this rare pygmy sperm whale jaw are extremely valuable to scientists for research purposes. “In the 1900s, you’d drill the bones and use glue,” says Judith Streat. “The bones themselves weren’t considered as precious as they are now.”

Once, museums employed people like Streat to skeletonise bones (prepare them for storage, study or display) and articulate the skeletons (pose them in a lifelike, anatomically correct fashion). These days, the work is so specialised and time-consuming, and demand for it so sporadic, that it’s the domain of a handful of freelancers. In this field, Streat is as good as they come.

“It’s funny what you end up doing,” she tells me. “It wasn’t my intention.”

Streat, who has a degree in visual arts, started out preparing displays at Canterbury Museum. Skeletons weren’t a big part of her work back then, but her flair for visual presentation and her broad skills—metalwork, welding, sculpture and engineering—drew her to bone articulation. “I’m not really coming from a science background,” she says, “but more from my hands-on skills with metalwork and an interest in natural things.”

Streat makes detailed diagrams of her articulations, providing instructions for technicians assembling them later.

Streat’s current project, the Shepherd’s beaked whale, was recovered from the Chatham Islands in 2015, and arrived at her place in 2018 in a refrigerated transport truck. Since then, Streat has been managing the decomposition process—macerating (or softening) the whale’s flesh to remove all trace from the bones, then slowly and painstakingly draining the bones of oil.

Some practitioners use sea water, composting, or even live beetles to macerate bones. Streat soaks them in fresh water for weeks or months (depending on their size), letting the bacteria in the water slowly break down the flesh. Her tanks are fitted with pumps to keep the water circulating and to maintain a living ecosystem for decomposition to occur in.

“Oxygen and movement are really important. Stagnant water is no good for anything. Everything goes sour and the bones go black.”

The water soaks into the bones and pushes the oil towards the surface. Vigilance is crucial. Teeth and smaller bones, such as finger digits or intervertebral discs, can easily get mixed up as the skeleton falls apart in the tank.

“You’ve got to catch it at just the right time, otherwise they all fall out and you’ve got them everywhere.”

Periodically, Streat washes the bones with detergent in the outdoor bath. I watch as she meticulously scrubs each bone, the water turning grey with the waxy oil. She estimates this is the 12th time she has scrubbed the skeleton. The process has to be repeated until most of the oil is removed, otherwise the bones will continue to leach oil and give off an unpleasant smell while on display.

Judith Streat is one of the finest preparators and articulators of animal bones in New Zealand. “A lot of it you pick up through reading,” she says. “There are not many people in New Zealand who do it. There are so many things you need to know. You can ruin a skeleton really easily.” She works from home in Lyttelton, where she is in the process of cleaning oil from a Shepherd’s beaked whale skeleton.

There are quicker ways to clean bones. You can use chemicals that bleach them a vivid white, but bones prepared in this manner can deteriorate over the decades. Streat’s method takes a lot longer, but produces a superior result.

“You get bones that are a lovely honey colour,” she says. “They’ve got just the right amount of oil left in them, and they’re going to last forever.”

Few preparators have had a chance to work with Shepherd’s beaked whales, so every step in this process has been new for Streat. So far, she’s discovered that the bones are much more densely permeated with oil than other whale skeletons she’s worked on.

“I’ve had it two years already and I’m not even scraping the surface of it. If I ever get a Shepherd’s beaked whale again, I’ll be in the know. But chances are I never will.”

The species is poorly known—most of our knowledge of Shepherd’s beaked whales comes from about 40 strandings, half of which have occurred on the Chatham Islands. Streat’s last project was an equally rare pygmy right whale, which was bigger but easier to work with, as it contained less oil.

Once the bones are cleaned, Streat returns them to cold water to soak. Later, when they are finally cleansed of oil, she will dry them out in her greenhouse. Then, they’ll move inside with her. In the basement of her house is a workshop, where she constructs the metal and fine wire framework for the skeleton. Her intricate armatures delicately cradle the bones, with fine surgical wires creeping like vines up the skeleton’s interior and emerging at key points to hold each bone at just the right angle to connect with the next.

“It has to all be reversible, so the bones can be removed for study. As I go, I’m taking it apart and putting it together all the time. What you want in the end is that, when someone looks at it, they don’t see the armature. So all that effort and all that work is about being behind the scenes.”

While Streat is building a skeleton, she watches nature films to get a feel for the animal’s living movements. Where possible, she observes the species in the wild. The art of her work lies in crafting a marriage of bone and metal, bringing a natural sense of movement back to the skeleton. “Getting things right is really important, because the work is going to stand for a long time. If something’s still going to be there in a hundred years, you’ve got to do it well.”

[Chapter Break]

“It’s science communication. It’s understanding deep time and history, and sharing that respect and appreciation.”

I’m talking with my good friend Sophie White at her home in Careys Bay on the Otago Harbour. Her goal is to work with bones professionally, like Streat does, but right now she has two jobs at the University of Otago—one as an associate research fellow working with teeth in bioanthropology and dentistry, and the other as a lab technician and fossil preparator.

Dunedin’s Sophie White prepares the fossilised remains of ancient whales and dolphins for display, including this skull she cast for Duntroon’s Vanished World Centre.

Of Te Ātiawa and Dutch descent, White grew up in Motueka. She often attended whale strandings, which are common in the region, and developed her bone skills by processing deer and pig skulls and birds for friends and local hunters, and by preparing materials for Department of Conservation (DOC) collections.

Working with the skin and bones of native species in New Zealand is difficult, as it’s illegal to possess native animal remains without a permit. “I was really limited,” she says, “because the only material I could really use and practise with was hunted or donated.”

A turning point came in 2013, when she met Ramari Oliphant Stewart, a naturalist who had spent decades restoring Māori knowledge of whales, including the recovery and preparation of whale bones.

“She was the person that revived the knowledge we now use,” says White. “She talked to our old people around the country—Māori and Pākehā, whaling families. She talked to anybody that she could. She went out into the Pacific and found the people that were still traditionally doing this. And she brought that knowledge back.”

Comparing extinct whales like these with modern skeletons, such as Otago Museum’s fin whale skeleton, allows researchers to better understand cetacean evolution. Old bones require tending: conservator Shannah Rhynard-Geil gives the fin whale a clean.
In the south Canterbury town of Pleasant Point, Catherine Morrison from O’Rourke Taxidermists prepares a kororā/little blue penguin for the Department of Conservation. The company is rarely called upon to work with native animals, as good specimens are hard to come by, the process is expensive and a special permit is required to have a native species taxidermied.

When a family of nine orcas stranded in Te Waewae Bay in Southland in 2014, White was invited to work alongside Ramari to recover the animals’ bones with the community of Ōraka Aparima rūnaka. Through the bitter winter months, the team cleaned and prepared the bones for display, first rotting them in sand trenches, then macerating them in custom-made tanks, before gently degreasing and draining them.

Today, Ramari is one of the finest preparators of whale bones in the country. Many of her exquisitely finished skeletons are held in Te Papa’s marine mammal collection. White is often called upon to assist in whale strandings by undertaking necropsies to determine the cause of death, and flensing and processing remains to recover them for scientific and customary purposes.

[Chapter Break]

White joins me on a visit to Otago Museum, where we climb the stairs to the impressive natural history collection. At one end of an artfully lit hallway, an enormous leopard seal skeleton floats in the shadows, its jaws perpetually open in a silent roar. Spotlights illuminate the bones, describing their curves, kinks and folds.

This female leopard seal came ashore on a local beach in 2009. When she died, the museum expressed interest in her, and after lengthy discussions with DOC and iwi, the seal—named Autahi—was sent to Christchurch to be taxidermied. Her carcass was trucked across town to Judith Streat, who skeletonised and articulated Autahi. (Streat estimates it took her about 900 hours.) The seal is now a star of the museum’s collection, her skeleton hanging directly above the mount of her taxidermied skin, each replicating the posture of
the other.

Bruce Mahalski runs the Museum of Natural Mystery from a Dunedin villa. Many of its animal displays feature introduced species. Regulations make it difficult for people to own the remains of native animals.

“It gets people thinking about the skeleton as a structure in movement,” says natural science curator Emma Burns. “It’s almost like a live X-ray for people to see.”

Stripped of flesh, Autahi’s flippers are revealed as hands, their intricate fingers a reflection of our own. The fingers contain dozens of tiny bones, each cradled by the tendrils of the wire frame Streat has crafted for them. The cleverly hidden armature is a skeleton within a skeleton—a work of art with purpose and function.

For White, Autahi represents a high-water mark. “To acquire the experience you need to do that takes decades of practice.”

We move through the museum’s galleries, travelling back in time past the palaeontological displays until we’re surrounded by the skeletons of old New Zealand. Hidden behind a grove of moa, a rare Haast’s eagle skeleton, articulated for display in the late 1800s, slumps on rickety legs. It looks tired and uncomfortable.

Burns tells me the museum plans to commission Streat to rearticulate it and bring life back to its posture, as well as correct anatomical errors.

But, in rebuilding the skeleton, they will have to make difficult decisions about how much of the original articulator’s vision to preserve. That work, after all, is now a part of the object’s story and identity.

Old articulations are often scientifically inaccurate by modern standards. All but one of the moa in this gallery, for example, have been mounted in a tall, upright position that represents a 20th-century understanding of the birds’ anatomy. Modern thinking, however, is that moa held their necks at a lower angle, more like a goose than an ostrich.

Our journey through the museum finishes at the 17-metre-long fin whale skeleton in the maritime gallery. William Jackson Barry recovered this whale from a beach near Nelson in 1883 and trundled it the length of the South Island on a horse-drawn cart, selling tickets to view it. In Dunedin, he invited groups to dine inside its ribcage.

A New Zealand fur seal articulated by Judith Streat at Otago Museum, Dunedin.
A great spotted kiwi skeleton held by Canterbury Museum.

The skeleton was eventually acquired by Otago Museum and mounted in the ceiling of its main gallery. To this day, skeleton experts come from around the world to admire how it’s articulated and suspended—an engineering feat that was highly innovative for its time.

I’ve begun to realise that, while skeletons may be a product of death, once prepared they begin a new journey beyond the body that housed them. The role of museums is to care for them on that journey, allowing them to tell their story for generations to come.

“That awe that you feel when you see those skeletons displayed,” says White, “I think that’s a real connection that people have. They feel some kind of deep respect for those creatures, and for the natural world. It’s like something that’s asleep inside people.”

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