Yesterday I went to see the exhibition Whales Tohorā at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
The exhibition is extraordinarily well put together, vibrant, interesting and informative, but it left me feeling disquieted.
I learned a whole lot of new information, including this shocker:
Whales are mammals whose ancestors lived on land. So how did they evolve into the sea creatures of today?
The answer to that riddle is that apparently during a hot period in the Earth’s history …
one group of hoofed mammals spent more and more time in the water, living on the abundant food there. Eventually they left the land altogether — to become whales.
When I entered the exhibition there was a group of young schoolchildren watching a cartoon on a TV: the story of Tinirau and the whale. I moved past that and went to the left where there was extensive information about the whaling industry, which only ceased in New Zealand in the 1970s, and of course, still continues in Japan.
While Māori traditionally gathered food and materials from whales that had stranded on the beaches, the industrial whalers set out to massacre the species for profit, including the unbelievably stupid practice of killing nursing females and their young. They almost obliterated whale populations, and in a very short time.
This set me thinking about what we’re doing to our planet — though these days that topic is seldom far from my mind. It also set me to contemplating my own role in that destruction.
So, with that unsettling note in my mind I continued through the exhibition. With others, I touched the real whalebones, as invited by the information cards. The life-size model of a
sperm blue whale’s heart was as tall as me, and roughly that same width and depth. I viewed the various models, reconstructions, and computer generated videos, and the massive skeletons hanging from the ceiling.
And it struck me suddenly that I was a participant in some kind of gruesome objectification of these magnificent creatures. We humans have all but wiped out the whales, and of course, we have completely exterminated all sorts of species. Here I was looking at these ‘specimens’ on display in a museum. I don’t know exactly what it was that unsettled me, but it seemed somehow irreverent.
My revulsion at the practices of commercial whalers had subsided by the time I reached the end, but with no crowd any more round the Tinirau and the whale animated movie I stopped to watch a portion. I wished I hadn’t:
This is a dramatic tale of treachery and revenge involving the chief Tinirau, his pet whale, Tutunui, and Tinirau’s sinister guest, Kae. The story reveals the complex relationship that Maori have with whales. Many versions are known throughout the Pacific.
I was in no mood yesterday for stories of human cruelty. For me the exhibition began with slaughter and ended with treachery. I visited another, more innocuous gallery before I left. The ‘earthquake’ house that replicates the Edgecumbe earthquake of 1987 definitely shook my head clear. Like all New Zealanders, I’m no stranger to earthquakes, but that one was definitely scary. With the immediate, personal threat engendered by that ‘shake’ my lingering concerns about the planet faded enough that I could face the outside world again.
Update: ooops: that’s a blue whale heart:
Did you know?
A blue whale’s heart can weigh up to 640 kilograms (1410 pounds).
A small child could crawl through the blue whale’s largest blood vessel.
[Via Te Papa’s Blog: Two blue whale hearts.]