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At nearly 45 feet long, a full scale model of a North Atlantic right whale dominates the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. Constructing a model this big was no easy feat - it showcases design and construction challenges never attempted before. It took four years and the work of dozens - designers, painters, sculptors, engineers, whale biologists, and exhibit fabricators - to bring the whale to life.                                                          

The Right Expertise

Phoenix, a North Atlantic Right Whale
Phoenix, a North Atlantic Right Whale, is the inspiration for the Ocean Hall's central symbol. Image courtesy: Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic

Marilyn Marx and Amy Knowlton, North Atlantic right whale experts at the New England Aquarium, worked with the Museum to select an actual individual as the model for the exhibit's whale. Tracked since birth, a female called Phoenix was a good candidate. Scientists knew her family tree and had followed her movements numerous times over the years, taking careful note of all her distinctive features. The Museum's exhibit team decided that she would become the Ocean Hall's ambassador - linking all the major themes of the hall and serving as a dramatic central icon.


Design Challenges

The museum contracted with Chase Studios, a Missouri firm with extensive model- and diorama-building experience, to construct Phoenix. Several significant challenges faced the team from the start:

  • The room beams that would support the whale model were not built to hold significant additional weight.
  • Also, a 45-foot model would not fit through the doors of the Museum - or the hall - in one piece.
  • But if the whale was assembled in the exhibit hall, no noxious fumes or toxins could be released in the public space.

Terry Chase, owner of Chase Studios, quickly calculated that a traditional fiberglass model would weigh about two tons, an impossible load for the roof supports. So Chase decided to try something novel, an aluminum skeleton with a lightweight foam body and mache for skin. But finding materials that met the Museum's strict fire safety standards would take months.

Getting the Details Right

Before Chase could design the final piece, he built numerous scale models to work out all the scientific details. Dozens of whale experts, including artist and whale researcher Rox Corbett, signed on to help, all of them familiar with Phoenix's individual markings, scars from being tangled in fishing gear, and callosites - light-colored patches of roughened skin on the whale's head.

Sketches of model
An outline of the whale's pose and several details of the jaw and tail reflect the painstaking search for accuracy. Images courtesy: Harriet "Rox" Corbett










Open Wide!

Clay model
One of the many clay models of Phoenix. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

The team wanted to position Phoenix as though she was diving and feeding with her mouth open. Even Marx and her colleagues at the New England Aquarium, saw this as a huge challenge. Right whale experts from other institutions - Michael Moore from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Bill McClellan of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and others - also weighed in with expert advice. The scientists had to determine critical details such as how the lips work when the whale feeds, how the lips fit together, and even how much the bottom jaw juts out when the mouth opens.

Model 1, 2, 3…

It took almost two years to perfect a one-twelfth scale model. The first ones were sculpted in clay. Scientists studied each new model carefully, suggesting many modifications to capture the whale's active pose and Phoenix's particular features. After the reviews, Chase would return to the studio to fashion a more accurate whale - something he did numerous times to refine all the details. In addition to New England Aquarium scientists, the Museum's own marine mammal experts, Charley Potter and Jim Mead, played an active role on the team. They provided careful measurements and consulted with the artists and model makers from Chase Studios to make as accurate a reproduction of Phoenix as possible.

Clay model of Phoenix
Marine mammal expert Charley Potter examines one of the clay models of Phoenix. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

The next step was a fiberglass model about the same size as the clay ones. Painted in full color, it would give the scientific team a good sense of what the full-size whale would look like. Four versions later, Chase produced the most accurate model of a living whale ever - perfect down to the placement of every hair and scar!

Building Something Unique

Two big challenges remained - finding light-weight, fire retardant building materials and designing the whale in pieces that fit through the museum doors. Ultimately, Chase tried more than a dozen kinds of foam until the team settled on a urethane material for the body covered by mâché with a texture like whale skin. They built the whale in seven pieces, and the Museum closed early on March 17, 2008, so that the front doors could be removed and the whale's head hoisted through the Mall entrance.

Phoenix Rises

All the pieces came together in the ocean hall, Phoenix's new home. Chase himself spent three weeks adding the final, distinctive details to the model.

At 2,300 pounds - about half the weight of a traditional model - Phoenix is big and beautiful. She dives gracefully through the two-story atrium, her story linking evert corner of the ocean hall and introducing visitors to the magical world beneath the ocean's surface.

Finished model of Phoenix
Images courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History


Fun Facts

  • Right whales weigh close to 2,000 pounds at birth.
  • Adults reach around 140,000 pounds, about the weight of 12 African elephants!
  • A right whale can eat more than 2,200 pounds of food a day.
  • Right whales, are baleen whales. Long baleen plates strain food - tiny copepods - frp, huge quantities of water.

Related Links:

NMNH Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Marine Mammals Program
The Marine Mammal Program is a cooperative research program with the principal goal of extracting biological data from stranded and incidentally taken marine mammals. Thorough examination of these specimens provides insights into the life history and systematics of marine mammals.

New England Aquarium

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service/Northeast Fisheries Science Center

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Center for Coastal Studies



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