Even Cleaning a Giant Whale Sculpture Is Epic

One tiny person, one tiny vacuum, one blue whale
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On the ceiling of the American Museum of Natural History hangs a model of the largest animal on Earth, the blue whale. 

The model is a replica, one might say, of a female blue whale that was found in 1925. And it is huge—94 feet long—although at just 21,000 pounds of fiberglass and polyurethane, it is an order of magnitude lighter than a flesh-and-blood blue whale.

The exhibit was installed in 1969, but as researchers learned more about blue whales, they realized that it was not anatomically correct. So, in 2001, they renovated the whale. "[Artists] flattened the model’s once-overly bulging eyes, accurately redesigned the whale’s blowholes, and tapered the tail," the AMNH noted. "Using about 25 gallons of cobalt and cerulean blue paint, the team also recolored and respotted the grayish blue whale." 

The most fun change they made was adding a belly button. Because, yes, whales have belly buttons, as we discovered in the late 20th century. 

I bring this glorious object—the whale, not its belly button—to your attention because I received a video of the whale being cleaned. Even such a majestic thing must be dusted and vacuumed once a year; in the video—captured, yesterday morning, from a live cam situated for the occasion—we get to see its summer cleaning.

The video is embedded above. In it, we see Brittany Janaszak, exhibition
maintenance manager at the American Museum of Natural History, lovingly vacuuming the whale from an elevated platform. No cleaning products are used. 

Her vacuum isn't any old vacuum. It's been specially approved for conservation work, said Dean Markosian, director of project management in the exhibition
department. It's "gentle enough to not damage the surface of the objects that are being cleaned," Markosian said. "The Whale is not as fragile as some of the objects on display at AMNH, but we would prefer be safe and take a little longer rather than take any unnecessary risks."

I leave you with this koan for contemplation: Even the biggest whale needs vacuuming. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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