Malm Whale: The World’s Only Taxidermied Whale

Apr 26, 2023 0 comments

Marine animals such as whales and dolphins, amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, and fish are difficult to taxidermy because their skins are harder to treat and keep stable. Although technically it is possible to skin a whale, remove the fat, and drape the skin over a fiberglass or wooden form, it’s a pointless exercise. A whale has no fur and without hair to keep cover, the skin would lose its color and in a few years turn a drab gray. That doesn’t mean it hasn't been tried before. At the Gothenburg Natural History Museum in Sweden, there is such a taxidermied whale, nicknamed the Malm Whale.

The Malm Whale at the Gothenburg Natural History Museum in Sweden. Photo: Jopparn/Wikimedia

In 1865, a young blue whale washed up on the shores of Askim near the city of Gothenburg. The whale was about seven months old, and at sixteen meters it was not quite fully grown but large enough to excite the locals, many of who had never seen a whale before. The fishermen who spotted the whale proceeded to slaughter the creature by first poking its eyes out so that “it would not be able to see us”, and then stabbing it with harpoons and hacking it with axes. Carl Hansson, one of the two fishermen who first discovered the whale, describes the barbaric way in which the whale was killed:

I then climbed up on its enormous head, and with an axe I cut a gash behind the two holes it was breathing through. … The whale was very slippery to hold on to, and since it was twitching violently, … I had to get back into the boat again on several occasions. … I cut it like this with the axe from ten o’clock until half past three in the afternoon. The next morning... I stabbed it with a scythe deep in the eye and belly.

When August Wilhelm Malm, the taxidermist and curator of the Gothenburg Museum, heard about the whale, he rushed to purchase the beast for his museum collection. Having closed the deal with its killers, Malm began the task of transporting the enormous mammal to Gothenburg. The transportation required the use of three steamboats and two coal barges, and drew a large crowd of curious onlookers upon arrival. Seeing the enthusiasm of the crowd, Malm climbed up on the back of the carcass and gave a brief lecture on whales.

The Malm Whale arrives in Gothenburg. Photo: National Library of Sweden

At first, Malm intended to keep only a couple of feet of the skin for the museum, but at the very last moment decided that he would preserve the entire whale. Malm hired a team of butchers to cut up the whale, and remove the blubber and the organs. Parts of the whale, including the heart, one eye, larynx, rectum, and parts of the intestines, were preserved with glycerine and alcohol. The skin was processed with salt, fat-absorbing sawdust, and pulverized pipe clay, and then coated on the inside with a saturated arsenic solution. After the skin had dried, it was coated with an additional layer of mercury chloride and then a layer of transparent copal varnish.

Meanwhile a great wooden frame was built in the shape of a whale and the skin was stretched over the frame, held together by 30,000 zinc and copper pins. The neck was equipped with hinges, allowing the jaw to be opened and visitors to climb into the belly of the beast. The inside was converted into a sitting room with benches, carpeting, and wall hangings. Some sources claim that the interior of the whale had once functioned as a small café where coffee and punch were served, among other things, but there are no reliable sources to confirm this.

The head, breast and tail segments of the Malm whale built in sections on beams, in the eastern half of the whale hall. Photo: Gothenburg's Natural History Museum

In the past, it was possible to climb into the whale’s mouth at any time, but sometime in the 1930s a couple was found making love inside, and after that incident the jaw was closed shut and only opened on special occasions. The mouth was opened in 1940 during the 75th anniversary of the Malm Whale and again in 1955 at the 90th anniversary, and once more in 1965 at the 100th anniversary. When the museum commemorated the whale’s hundredth birthday in 1965, more than 11,000 people visited it during the ten-day celebration. Newspapers reported that American tourists were especially interested, entering “the belly of the whale for religious reasons—they want to follow in the footsteps of the prophet Jonah, and they have their pictures taken when deep in prayer.”

The whale is still there at the Gothenburg Natural History Museum, where it completed 150 years in 2015.

The Malm Whale being moved from East Indian House to its newly built premises at Gothenburg Natural History Museum, 1 November 1918. Photo: Elisabet Petersson.

The Malm Whale being moved from East Indian House to its newly built premises at Gothenburg Natural History Museum, 1 November 1918. Photo: Elisabet Petersson.

The whale in three segments, various horns and moose heads lying on the floor, during the zoological department's move-in. Photo: Gothenburg Natural History Museum

The Malm Whale lying next to its skeleton at the Gothenburg Natural History Museum. Photo: Dr. Mirko Junge/Wikimedia 

# The Gothenburg Leviathan, Cabinet Magazine
# The Malm Whale, The Gothenburg Museum of Natural History


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