Winter Is Dead, It’s Time To Spring Clean


Wednesday 22nd of March

On a recent visit to the gallery, I found the McManus conservation team busy cleaning the ‘Tay Whale’, a skeleton of a Humpback whale located in the ‘Making of Modern Dundee’ exhibition. The ritual spring clean is an opportunity for the museum to clean and re-examine its displays. The conservators Becky and Carly undertook the intricate task upon a scaffold, equipped with a specialist vacuum cleaner and soft brushes. To prevent damage, they first gently brushed the dust from the many bones and then vacuumed the surface.

spring clean

I was not surprised to find the museum cleaning a day after the spring equinox (the 21st of March). Yet, I began to wonder, why do we spring clean? Traditionally, spring is a time to open all the windows, to do a thorough clean, but it is also a time to celebrate rebirth and new beginnings. The conservator’s act of cleaning helps to preserve the bones of a long-dead creature, maintaining its legacy beyond death.

Image from a German exchange student inspired by a gallery spring visit

The whale story is immortalized by its preservation, allowing the story to be re-told. Visitors will question why this unfortunate whale a creature that lived in the sea, ended up in a gallery? It swam up the Tay in 1883, evaded capture, eventually died and was towed ashore at Stonehaven. [1] John Woods bought it at an auction and donated the skeleton to the museum. The famous Dundee poet McGonagall wrote a poem about the whale’s experience. On the strength of the Tay Whale poem and other verses, he was acclaimed to be “the worst poet in the English language”[2]. Here is an example of the first verse.

’TWAS in the month of December, and in the year 1883,
That a monster whale came to Dundee,
Resolved for a few days to sport and play,
And devour the small fishes in the silvery Tay.[3]

The whale lives on in object and tale. I believe each spring clean represents the preservation of the life force, still present in a dead inanimate object. [4] When we clean “we are negotiating with our mortality” [5]. In death, we return to dust and in time we are forgotten. The action of cleaning the bones, fundamentally allows the conservators to attempt to control the rate of the ‘Tay Whales’ demise.

[1] McManus. (date unknown). Tay Whale Skeleton. Available: Last accessed 23rd march 2017.

[2] Godfrey, P.C. (2012). Review. Available: Last accessed 22nd March 2017.

[3] Hunt, C. (2014). The Famous Tay Whale. Available: Last accessed 22nd March 2017.

[4] Putman, J (2009). Art and Artififact: The Museum as Medium. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson. P 38.

[5] Lowder, B. (2014). Rethinking Spring Cleaning.Available: Last accessed 22nd March 2017.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.