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Nemesis Of New York Museum’s 21,000-Pound Blue Whale: Dust Bunnies

Two days in the bath might turn anyone blue, but that’s exactly the color sought by staff at New York’s American Museum of Natural History cleaning a 21,000-pound (9,500 kg) fiberglass blue whale looming over exhibits.

21,000-pound blue whale

The 94-foot (29 meters) whale replica that hangs over the museum’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life was undergoing the final day of its annual cleaning on Tuesday, which means removing a year’s worth of dust bunnies, said Dean Markosian, director of project management for the museum’s exhibition departments.

Suspended by a 16-inch-diameter (40 cm) steel pipe at a single point where its tail meets the ceiling, the mostly hollow model is meant to appear to be swimming in the ocean. At 190 tons, blue whales are the heaviest creatures to have ever existed on Earth.

Using a vehicle similar to a cherry picker and a vacuum cleaner with a 12-foot (3.6 meters) arm, the cleaning process takes two days, Markosian said. Until four years ago, cleaning the whale was a much more involved process, requiring scaffolding all around the leviathan and taking a full week.

“It’s surprising just how much surface area there is up there,” Markosian said. “That’s why it takes an enormous amount of time.”

The life-sized fiberglass blue whale has been in the museum for 45 years and was modeled after a dead female found off South America in 1925.

In 2003, armed with modern knowledge of what living blue whales look like, the museum changed its color from a lifeless gray to a vibrant blue, shaved down its bulging eyes, trimmed its tail and added a belly button.

When the accumulation of dust brings it closer to gray again, workers know it is time for the annual cleaning meant to restore its blue tone.

Usually it’s just dust up there, not paper planes, gum residue or the typical marks of affection left on a beloved exhibit visited by 5 million guests every year, including one out of every three New York City public school children, Markosian said.

“There might have been an occasional glob or something on there that we couldn’t even tell what it was, but it’s up there – you’d really have to get some kind of launcher,” he said.


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