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Posted on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 : 6:17 p.m.

Art meets science meets logistics: The journey of a prehistoric whale skeleton

By Staff

University of Michigan move-in week often gives rise to sights of some unusual things being hauled around campus. But a cast of a prehistoric whale skeleton? That's worth an extra look. photographer Angela Cesere was on the scene:

So why was a cast of a prehistoric whale skeleton being moved across campus?

Art photographer Richard Barnes is the Paula and Edwin Sidman Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Michigan this year, and the U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery will host his exhibit "Past Perfect/Future Tense" this fall. The exhibit is inspired by the collections in the university's Exhibit Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Zoology.

A statement from the Institute for the Humanities explains, "In this unique installation, Barnes considers the nature of things from collection and display to extinction. A prehistoric skeletal whale juxtaposes a mound of rubber molds and resin casts, examining questions of replication and authenticity, what we save and what we lose. Both lyrical and visceral, Barnes’ work engages us in a provocative conversation about museological practice from behind the scenes, capturing the inextricable relationship between human gesture and the inevitability of extinction."

So, the whale skeleton - a discovery of U-M Professor of Paleontology Phillip Gingerich - had to be moved from its home at the Exhibit Museum on Geddes Avenue to the Institute for the Humanities on Thayer Street. The trip, which took place Monday, wasn't perfect - a too-small door caused a slight problem, and the frame holding the skeleton got in the way at journey's end. But the transfer was made successfully.

The Richard Barnes exhibit runs Sept. 17-Oct. 30 at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 S. Thayer St, Room 1010. An opening reception is planned for 6:30-8 p.m. Sept. 17. For more information, see



Thu, Sep 3, 2009 : 10:58 a.m.

CALL IT 'BILLY THE GOAT' : Whale is a marine mammal. To name an animal as a mammal, we need some soft tissue evidence apart from a skeleton.


Wed, Sep 2, 2009 : 6:29 p.m.

If the whale had legs, why couldn't it just WALK ITSELF across campus? All that being said, I am kidding about all this and the toothpaste/tar post. The skeleton is very cool, and props to the UM Natural History Museum staff. If it clears anything up, I think the "Art" they are referring to in the (albeit confusing) article caption is that the photographer is an "Art Photographer". Nobody is saying that "The Creator" didn't create the original bones. Nobody is saying that you have to call it a "Prehistoric Whale" either... I think they are simply suggesting that, by scientific means, it appears to be a whale ancestor. What's in a name? I'm going to call it Johnny Bravo.


Wed, Sep 2, 2009 : 8:58 a.m.

IT IS NOT THE SKELETON OF A WHALE : I could not get a chance to read the 1,000 page Ph.D dissertation but I can assure all of you that it is scientifically inaccurate to describe this particular skeleton as that of a 'WHALE SKELETON'. Hence, the caption for this story is wrong. Art speaks of the creative energy of human beings. The Skeleton speaks of the Creative Energy of the Creator.


Tue, Sep 1, 2009 : 2:18 p.m.

Actually, the skeleton is a cast from the original bones, so "white tar" is not so out there (though more like resin & fiberglass though -- a common casting material). However, I have handled the actual bones the whale was cast from (back in 1996) as it was my ex's pHd dissertation project (about 1,000 pages of paper) and it's very real. Look up Dorudon Atrox and Dr. Mark D Uhen for a lot more info on that whale. Very cool step in whale evolution.

Laura Bien

Tue, Sep 1, 2009 : 2:04 p.m.

Neato mosquito. I love the Museum, used to work there a lifetime ago as a docent. Still love going there.


Tue, Sep 1, 2009 : 9:26 a.m.

I agree with the guy who wrote the "ENERGY, FORCE" stuff. In fact, those guys pushing around the alleged "Whale Skeleton" look more like anti-creationist secret service mad scientists. They probably just made those evil bones out of white tar and toothpaste to destroy all faith.


Tue, Sep 1, 2009 : 8:53 a.m.

ART MEETS THE REALITY OF 'CREATION' : The pre-historic animal skeleton that was discovered by the U of M Professor of Palentology is not that of a Whale.Creation is the physical manifestation of an ENERGY/POWER/FORCE that causes and brings into existence entities which are unique,individually distinctive,and which exist because of the Energy/Power/Force of the Mercy, Compassion, and Grace of the Bestower of this Energy.The Future of Extinction constantly poses a real threat to Human Existence. Nothing but, Mercy, Compassion, and Grace could defend Human Existence from the Physical Challenge imposed by the natural phenomenon of EXTINCTION.

guy in a tie

Mon, Aug 31, 2009 : 8:39 p.m.

Awesome. thanks!!