Dinosaur or whale? No argument, it has to be the one we live with

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Photo Natural History Museum

I saw my first whale in Hawaii. I was driving along a remote cliff road. Rounding a bend I saw a bubbling of white water close to shore. I stopped the car. It was a group of humpback whales, frolicking, it seemed, in the otherwise still azure sea. And as I watched one of them rose up. Only its tail remained out of sight as its vast grey bulk hung almost vertically, and it flapped its great dripping flippers as if to say hello, before slowly tipping back into the sea with an enormous swell.

That alone would have done it for me: whales over dinosaurs, any day. Today the Natural History Museum in London lets the public see its newly displayed whale skeleton for the first time. The bones of a blue whale – not just the largest living creature on earth now, but the largest ever (the largest ever!) – have been hung in the museum’s fabulous great entrance hall, where a long-necked Diplodocus skeleton had been standing since 1979.

Yesterday someone at Front Row had the inspired idea of bringing two people together to argue the merits of displaying a dinosaur over a whale. They did a great job of it: Matthew Sweet championing whales, Tom Holland dinosaurs.

“Our relationship with whales,” says Sweet, talking to Samira Ahmed, “goes back to the palaeolithic. We’ve only known about the dinosaurs for a couple of hundred years.” “Dinosaurs have no rival,” retorts Holland, “as embodiments of popular culture.”

To back his case, Sweet offers Moby-Dick. Holland gives us dinosaurs: theme parks, Tennyson, Dickens. Unlike dinosaurs, whales are moral beings, says Sweet. Jurassic Park, says Holland, is emblematic of our troubled relationship with science. Large placid and stupid, says Sweet. I give you Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, says Holland, picking up on the notion that modern birds are living dinosaurs.

I have to admit the dino sound clips win: where was Leonard Rosenman’s Whale Fugue from Star Trek IV? The late Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation (in 1988 the BBC broadcast a 45-minute Omnibus film with music by Elizabeth Parker, of Roy Hutchins reading the entire poem!). Or even a whale? But overall I’m with Sweet, for two reasons.

First, we have a long, fantastic association with these wonderful creatures. When I saw the whales in Hawaii, the animals were at the height of being infantilised as mystical, superior beings; they featured in expensive kitsch art and commercial recordings of singing that lasted hours and were supposed to raise our consciousness. Around the same time I found a book in a shop in Victoria, BC, published by Penguin Canada, about whaling. It doesn’t seem to have made a great impact: “Readable, well-researched”, says a review quote on the back; there are a few used copies on Amazon, where its author’s name is given incorrectly.

The book was The Great Chase: A History of World Whaling, by Daniel Francis, who lived in Vancouver and had previously written a similar book about Canadian whaling. It was a refreshing take. He gets the grandeur and wonder of whales, and he gets the terrible losses, the indignities of slaughter and exploitation, and the threats to their existence at the time he is writing. But he also understands the heroic 18th- and 19th-century industry, the terrible dangers and living conditions the crews faced, the extraordinary trade that involved great ships on unimaginably long journeys in unmapped waters, and all the curious things that the vast butchered beasts ended up supplying around the world. It is mainly about this that he writes. I found it utterly gripping.

stranded rorquals.jpgPeople needed ocean-going ships to hunt whales industrially, but sometimes whales do the job for us and wash up on the beach. In that form, they must have been cut up and used as long as there have been humans roaming our shores – which currently we think is nearly a million years (on and off). I’m not aware of a modern comprehensive study of ancient whale remains in Britain. The archaeologist Grahame Clark wrote a characteristically clever article on the subject in 1947 (“Whales as an economic factor in prehistoric Europe”, Antiquity 21, 84–104). The three drawings here are taken from the article.

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Whale bones had been found on many prehistoric sites, writes Clark, but is it possible to say if any of these were the result of hunting rather than just gathering stranded whales? First, he finds written evidence for hunting in Europe back to at least the 10th century AD. He says most of the larger whales can be dismissed as potential prehistoric quarry, including the Greenland right whale, rorquals and sperm whales. Historic records show large numbers of stranded whales on UK shores. Clark finds four 19th-century descriptions of whale skeletons unearthed in Scotland with apparently prehistoric tools, including a rorqual skeleton with a piece of perforated red-der antler into which a wooden handle had been inserted. He finds neolithic axe-like tools of cattle bone from Skara Brae, that look remarkably like Inuit bone adze-blades used for cutting up whale blubber. From similar evidence, combined with prehistoric stone engravings on the coast of Norway, he concludes that porpoises, killer whales and pilot whales were hunted in the neolithic.

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This was long ago, and of course there will be a great deal more evidence now. including this apparent bronze age whale vertebra just excavated in Dorset by the Durotriges project:

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So, in defence of whales vs dinosaurs, first is the human association with whales and all the stories that conjures, and the research yet to do. The other, obvious, value of a great whale exhibit is that the creatures are alive now, but in the case of several species may not be so in the foreseeable future: they are affected by hunting, pollution and climate change. Here is an exhibit to inspire young would-be saviours of the planet.

There’s another thing to be said. The new display is not just about the whale. The Hintze Hall has been treated to a re-arrangement, with “star exhibits” around the edge acting as “the gateway to our collections and galleries”.

Here is something the British Museum could follow. The place was transformed when the Great Court opened under its new roof, with a huge new space at the centre of the building. It was, and remains quite wonderful. But it had the strange effect of diminishing the rest of the museum, highlighting the shabbiness of some of its older galleries.

That is slowly being rectified with a succession of new galleries, but one thing is still missing. The Great Court is surrounded by doors into ground floor galleries. It physically acts as a sort of central station: but it doesn’t show you the way. Why not use the still empty round library room in the centre to show off star exhibits, to set up global conversations? I’d put Hoa Hakananai’a at the centre, the Easter Island statue with its own complex stories, and gather round exceptional and powerful artefacts that can introduce us to their varied worlds, and set us off to find them.

The blue whale and Hoa Hakananai’a are both, in their fascinating ways, awe-inspiring symbols of our relationship with the oceans – most of the planet, and the bit we should now most be worried about.

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