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‘Whales: Giants of the Deep” opening at Witte Museum

San Antonio Express-News logo San Antonio Express-News 24/05/2017 Deborah Martin

Skeletons of a female sperm whale (left) and a juvenile male sperm whale are highights of “Whales: Giants of the Deep," which opens on Saturday at the Witte Museum. © Alma E. Hernandez /For The San Antonio Express News Skeletons of a female sperm whale (left) and a juvenile male sperm whale are highights of “Whales: Giants of the Deep," which opens on Saturday at the Witte Museum. Before a single crate was opened for installation of “Whales: Giants of the Deep” at the Witte Museum, there was a prayer.

“What that’s actually doing is recognizing the spiritual element of the show and it’s also honoring the people at the Witte Museum that they’re looking after our onge (treasure),” said Shane James, a cultural representative of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where the exhibit originated.

James is part of a team of four who transport the exhibit from place to place and help set it up.

The team considers the staff of any museum that presents “Whales” “guardians of our ancestors’ treasures,” James said. “That represents that special relationship that we’re having. And the fact that we’re sharing our stories with another country, another land.”

San Antonio is the last U.S. city to host the exhibit, which has been touring for about eight years. James and company will return at the end of the summer to take it down and move it to its next stop in Canada.

The exhibit is a fittingly large-scale look at whales, including an exploration of their role in the culture of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, who hold the creatures sacred. There also are sections dealing with whale anatomy, including two gigantic sperm whale skeletons, one an adult female and the other a juvenile male. (Surprise! The juvenile, which is more than 55 feet long, is the larger of the two).

There are cases filled with skulls from dozens of whales, a good representation of the more than 25 species that have been identified. And there is a reproduction of a blue whale heart that is roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

The fact that the massive exhibit fits so well into the museum’s Mays Center is no accident. The space, which opened last year, was designed specifically to accommodate it, said Randall Webster, vice president of exhibitions at the Witte. The center is a rental facility for most of the year, then is converted to an exhibition space for big shows each summer.

“We knew this was going to be one of our first exhibits, so a lot of the decisions were made based on this,” Webster said.

That included making sure that the beams in the ceiling could bear the weight of the sperm whale skeletons, because the exhibit originally was designed for them to be suspended from above. That isn’t possible at some older museums, and so the presentation was changed before it arrived at the Witte.

There also was the question of just how those whales could be brought into the museum. The solution was to turn one of the glass walls in the gallery facing Broadway into a door, Webster said. When it’s ajar, the opening is 11-feet-wide — big enough for a whale skeleton.

“We didn’t want a huge loading dock,” he said. “We have a small one for catering trucks. But since we would only use this (space for exhibits) in the summer, we didn’t want to have this big loading dock the rest of the year. So we came up with at solution of turning that into a door. We can park in the main drive and just unload through that door.”

When Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott saw the exhibit in San Francisco, she said, it was a tight fit. That won’t be the case here.

One section that grabbed McDermott’s imagination immediately depicts the evolution of whales from ratlike land dwellers to creatures of the sea. It appears that she was not alone.

“When I saw it in California, people would literally (gasp),” she said. “So that’s what we think is going to happen here.”

The importance of conservation is emphasized throughout, connecting the show with standing exhibits throught the museum, said Helen Holdsworth, curator of the Texas Wild gallery.

Jaw bones of 13 different whale species will be exhibited in “Whales: Giants of the Deep.” © Alma E. Hernandez /For The San Antonio Express News Jaw bones of 13 different whale species will be exhibited in “Whales: Giants of the Deep.”

“It’s something that we, with our new exhibits, are really trying to get people to start talking about,” said Holdsworth, noting that stewardship of the oceans doesn’t begin and end at the coastline. “The San Antonio River runs right into the Gulf of Mexico. If you throw trash or pour oil into the street and it washes into the river, it can get down to the bay. So I think this is a great exhibit to link to what we’ve just opened and what we’re just starting to get the word out about and really re-enforce it with a majestic creature that people really want to know about, they want to see, but most, in their lifetime, won’t.”

One of the final sections deals with strandings, a common occurrence in New Zealand, where it happens more than 100 times a year, James said.

The strandings are meaningful to the Maori, he said.

A koropepe (pendant), dated between 1800 and 1900 and made of whale bone and red wax, is part of the “Whales” exhibit. © Courtesy Museum Of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa A koropepe (pendant), dated between 1800 and 1900 and made of whale bone and red wax, is part of the “Whales” exhibit. A heru (ornamental comb) made of whale bone, dated between 1800 and 1900, is one of the artifacts displayed in the "Whales: Giants of the Deep" touring exhibit. © Courtesy Museum Of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa A heru (ornamental comb) made of whale bone, dated between 1800 and 1900, is one of the artifacts displayed in the "Whales: Giants of the Deep" touring exhibit.

“Traditionally, Maori have many gods - so you have a god of the sea, god of the forest, god of rivers, lakes,” he said. “So when a whale strands on the beach, we see it as a gift of Tangaroa, the god of the sea. So it’s one of his children he is gifting to us.

“So in the days of old, a beached whale was seen as a sign of the god thanking them, so they would then go down to the beach, they would do prayers …thanking the god of the sea for giving them this whale. They would eat the whale, as well, and take the bone material - especially from a sperm whale - they would take the bone and then they would make treasures out of it.”

Workers transport a section of vertebrate of a juvenile male sperm whale at the Witte Museum. © Alma E. Hernandez /For The San Antonio Express News Workers transport a section of vertebrate of a juvenile male sperm whale at the Witte Museum.

The exhibit includes pendants, weapons and other items carved from whale bones and teeth. They were seen as indications of status, James said.

The exhibit explores the role of whales in the culture of the Maori. © Alma E. Hernandez /For The San Antonio Express News The exhibit explores the role of whales in the culture of the Maori.

Bone material from the most recent beachings also will be recovered after the bodies decompose, he said.

An aurei (cloak pin) dated between 1800 and 1900 is believed to have been made from a sperm whale tooth. © Courtesy Museum Of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa An aurei (cloak pin) dated between 1800 and 1900 is believed to have been made from a sperm whale tooth. Tori Osborn (left) and Shane James assemble a sperm whale skeleton for the “Whales” exhibit. © Alma E. Hernandez /For The San Antonio Express News Tori Osborn (left) and Shane James assemble a sperm whale skeleton for the “Whales” exhibit.

“I think you could probably call it recycling,” he said. “We don’t like to waste anything. But nowadays, we don’t eat the whales any more. All we do is take the bones and make artifacts.”

“Whales: Giants of the Deep” can be seen Saturday through Sept. 4 at the Witte Museum, 3801 Broadway. Tickets range from $7 for members and $17 to $20 for nonmembers for "Whales" and general Witte admission. They can be purchased at the door or in advance at wittemuseum.org.

dlmartin@express-news.net

Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

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