Whale Shark Restoration
The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, Centerport, NY
The centerpiece of the Diorama Hall at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is an eight-ton whale shark. At 32 feet long, it is believed to be the largest piece of fish taxidermy in the world. It hovers majestically above the Diorama Hall, bathed from below in a virtual sea of blue lights. However, The serene appearance of the whale shark belies the epic struggles that made this piece of taxidermy possible.
The fact that this specimen exists at all is the result of no less than three separate but equally unlikely events. The whale shark was caught by accident, on Aug. 9, 1935, when it was hauled up in the nets of a commercial fishing boat off Fire Island, New York. Fire Island is nearly 700 miles north of the typical range for whale sharks. The whale shark lay rotting in the hot sun for several days as the fishermen who caught it charged admission to see it. Fortunately, William K. Vanderbilt II recognized the value of this unique specimen, and was in a position to purchase it for his private collection.
The taxidermists who first mounted the whale shark did an admirable job, especially given the massive size of the animal and the very poor preservation of the skin, but time and the elements have not been kind to the whale shark. The Diorama Hall has no climate control or ventilation, so the whale shark was subjected to high temperatures in the summer and low temperatures in the winter. In 1996, the antiquated plumbing in the museum began to leak, causing water to drip on the shark. The water damage caused huge sections of skin to peel away from the whale shark’s armature like limp wallpaper.
In 2003, the Federal Government awarded the museum a $135,000 grant, through the Save America's Treasures initiative, to restore the Diorama Hall and its exhibits. Suffolk County provided matching funds to restore the infrastructure of the hall. Most experts agreed that the whale shark could not be restored at any price; however, the mission of the Vanderbilt Museum includes preserving the Vanderbilt mansion and its contents, so the curators did not want to dispose of the whale shark until they had exhausted all other options.
In 2007, the Vanderbilt Museum hired David B. Schwendeman, founder of Schwendeman's Taxidermy Studio, in Milltown, New Jersey, to assemble a restoration team to save the whale shark. Dave asked George Dante to take part in the project, because he recognized WP’s expertise in fish work and museum restoration.
“I was in it for the challenge,” says George. “I’m a very competitive person, and I was driven by the fact that everyone who assessed the project said it could not be done. And then there was the historical significance. I was impressed that the original taxidermists were able to preserve this massive animal, especially given what they had to work with. I felt we owed it to them to try and repair what they had worked so hard to preserve.”
Due to the unique nature of the specimen, every step of the project was a first of its kind. Countless hours were spent brainstorming the best way to approach the project. Tests were conducted. Procedures were invented. The entire specimen was moist, laden with mold and mildew, and highly unstable. The skin was mounted over a mannequin, or armature, built from wood covered with a very thin layer of burlap and plaster. It was nearly impossible to secure anything to it.
In addition to the obstacles encountered with the piece itself, working conditions at the Vanderbilt Mansion were far from ideal. For logistical reasons, all work had to be performed in the Diorama Hall, which had very poor lighting and ventilation, and no climate control. The outdated electrical wiring of the mansion limited the number of lights that could be brought into the hall without blowing a fuse. The whale shark is suspended over blue glass lighting panels, which could not be removed, which meant that the restoration team had to put their faith in scaffolding supported by a seventy-two-year-old glass floor. All work was performed on the whale shark while it was still hanging from the ceiling. After spending hours working upside down on ladders, with the whale shark swaying from side to side, workers would get the sensation that the entire room was moving.
“These were some of the most difficult working conditions I ever encountered,” said George. “Yet in some way, it fueled us to strive for success even more.”
Over the course of a year, the original skin of the whale shark was cleaned and stabilized before being reapplied to the mannequin. The skin was then sealed with a primer to protect it from mold. Finally, the entire specimen was painted to restore the specimen to living color.
George feels all the hard work was worthwhile. “The true reward at the end was to see the smiles upon the curator and staff’s faces at the complete resurrection of this national treasure,” says George. “We did the impossible, we made new breakthroughs in restorations, and we saved the un-savable.”
The Diorama Hall reopened in the summer of 2008.
To see more pictures of the restoration of the whale shark, click here
To read a New York Newsday article about the whale shark, click here