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Exhibits: A whale of a tale at the ROM

Photos courtesy Holman

By Peter Saunders
In May 2014, the carcass of a blue whale—the largest animal known to have ever existed in the history of the world—was recovered from a beach in Trout River, N.L. The story made headlines around the globe, as it is exceedingly rare to find a full specimen of the endangered species. Also, when one is found, it is no easy matter to clean up.

The female whale’s 24-m (80-ft) long skeleton, comprising 350 bones, and 200-kg (440-lb) heart were salvaged and preserved under the auspices of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), which finally put them on display this year for the public with Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story.

As the ROM developed a full exhibit to surround the skeleton, it turned to Toronto-based Holman to produce signs, graphics and fixtures for interpretive purposes.

“After two years of working on the shores of Newfoundland, the dedicated team at the ROM has brought to life, in actual scale, what it would be like to stand next to a real blue whale,” says Sakina Khawaja, Holman’s marketing director. “This exhibit was truly an honour to produce, showcasing this massive creature and paying tribute to an endangered species.”

Framing an exhibit
The process began when Holman responded 
to the ROM’s request for proposals (RFP) in November 2016. The two organizations had worked together in the past, but not within the past five years, so it was an opportunity for a new learning experience. Chris Marshall, Holman’s director of project management, visited the museum to conduct a site survey and to understand the full scope of the planned work.

“The RFP involved not only putting in the new exhibit, but also removing the old one first, which showcased the glass-based artwork of sculptor Dale Chihuly,” explains Leslie Roach, project manager for Holman. “We didn’t know how far along the whale bones were. We put in our costing and were selected five to 10 days later.”

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Starting late that month, Holman worked with ROM project manager Jason French, as well as Research Casting International in Trenton, Ont., which was preparing the whale bones for display.

“We didn’t deal with any artifacts ourselves, but we fabricated and installed all of the casing and other components for displaying them,” says Khawaja, “and while the ROM team did all of the interpretive planning, we did get to suggest designs and ‘silhouettes’ for the exhibitry.”

“We were able to re-engineer the Chihuly exhibit’s platform,” says Roach. “We covered the top portion with acrylic and added theatre lighting. By rejigging the platform to support the massive weight of the whale skeleton, we avoided having to move it, saving time and money.”

The exhibit space itself was wide open, but the ROM would erect new temporary walls within it as needed, based on how visitor traffic was to be directed.

“About 75 per cent of the walls in the space would be new,” Roach says.

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