Monday, 27 March 2017

HOW BIG, HOW BLUE, HOW BEAUTIFUL: THE BLUE WHALES STORY AT THE ROM

EXHIBITION REVIEWS

BY SADIE MACDONALD

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (better known as “The One With the Whales”), Dr. McCoy posed an incredulous question: “Who would send a probe on a journey of hundreds of lightyears to talk to a whale?” If you’re in Toronto right now and want to talk to a whale, you won’t have to travel quite that far. Just head over to the Out of the Depths: The Blue Whales Story at the Royal Ontario Museum, which will remain on view until September 2017.

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This exhibition centres on the 2014 event in which the dead bodies of nine blue whales were found trapped in ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Two of those whales washed up on the shores of small towns in Newfoundland. Sensing a rare opportunity, the ROM sent a team of researchers to collect the skeletons in a massive, labour-intensive campaign. Those involved in recovering the bodies expressed the hope that scientific research could make the best of this tragedy, and that the ROM could use the corpses to better understand blue whales and communicate new knowledge to the public. The exhibition focuses on the blue whale that arrived in Trout River, which is rather uncreatively named “Blue.” Her recovered skeleton is the focal point of the exhibition.

Blue's skeleton. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.

It really is breathtaking to turn around the corner after the exhibition’s introductory section and be faced with a full whale skeleton. Beside the bones is an immense wall-sized video of a swimming blue whale matching the outline of the skeleton. Standing next to the skeleton’s empty eye socket and seeing the video behind it helped bring the whale to life in my mind.

Out of the Depths describes how a ROM research team dissected the body and recovered material from it for the exhibition. I liked that there was focus on the small Newfoundland towns where the whales were found, and how the “screech-in” certificates of ROM team members were posted in the exhibition. Sometimes the videos of the whale bodies and their dissection can be graphic, though the children present at my visit did not seem especially perturbed by it. In any case, having this research story underlying the informative text works well to create a connection with the material on display.

The exhibition makes frequent use of sensory stimulation through touch, video, and audio. A sample of blue whale songs plays in one section, which reverberates throughout the whole exhibit. It is impressive to hear and feel, but it did give me a headache after a while. If you are sensitive to loud noises and vibrations, please be aware of this feature before visiting Out of the Depths.



There are several interactive components to the exhibition, some more inspired than others. A krill dress-up section may only appeal to children and has limited educational value, and the “License to Krill” game had frustrating controls (then again, I am terrible at video games no matter the level of mechanics present).

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I preferred the visuals that allowed one to relate to the information being presented. For example, by standing on a scale you can see “how many of you it takes to equal Blue” (it takes 1556.2 Sadies to equal one Blue). There are also helpful comparisons of hearts, blood, and brains. There has been buzz around the heart that the research team managed to salvage from the body of the whale found in Rocky Harbour, which is still being plastinated in Germany. There are plans to install the heart in the Out of the Depths exhibition once the plastination process is complete.

Whoever wrote the interpretation text for the exhibition has a love for puns. Just about every reference one could make out of the word “blue” appears in the section titles. I enjoyed the conversational, cheeky tone of the text, and how it effectively struck a balance between being informative without being condescending. For example, early in the exhibition, a panel states that “Whales are mammals. Not fish. But you knew that.”

An example of a cheeky referential title. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald

While the exhibition is playful, there is also a continuous narrative thread on the tragedy of the deaths of nine whales, which was three percent of the Northwest Atlantic blue whale population in 2014. Throughout the exhibition, visitors are reminded of the need to conserve the dwindling blue whale population, which human activity has had a direct hand in depleting. This point is hammered home in a final heartfelt video near the end of the exhibition, in which scientists and other involved participants urge viewers to help save the whales. However, the sobering effect of this video is slightly hindered by it being situated right next to the brightly-lit exhibition gift shop. Gift shops are a necessary evil of museums, but here maybe it could have been hidden better.

A final smile from Blue. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.

The true end of the exhibition comes after exiting the gift shop. On the wall is a call to action with suggestions for how visitors can participate in whale conservation. It is effective to end the exhibition on a note that is both serious and hopeful.

We need to do what we can to enable whales to thrive. As Star Trek IV taught us, you never know when you might need a whale around to help save the world.

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