Skeleton Assembly

Roger Topp

Team of skeleton assemblers at work in the space converted to a workshop in the UAMN.

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

By December 2019, the UAMN had decided to proceed into late phases of bone preparations. Final skeletal bone cleaning was underway by February 2020. Then, in March of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic caused UAF’s operational curtailment. Student help positions evaporated. UAMN budget strictures became more severe, as tourism and paid visitorship dwindled to near zero. Some museum staff were furloughed and others worked from home.

UAF’s summer 2020 campus shutdown nevertheless presented new opportunities to alert motivated and enterprising enthusiasts intent on finishing both the permanent and temporary bowhead exhibits. The absence of summer visitors allowed the museum to initiate engineers’ structural re-evaluations of ceiling support from which to hang the bowhead skeleton from enough points to distribute its weight safely.

Without visitors, the museum also re-purposed its auditorium as a temporary workshop. There, the whale’s skeleton could be spread out and then re-assembled in strongly articulated segments. Key museum staff collaborators, Curator of Mammals Link Olson, Mammals Collections Manage, Aren Gunderson, and Museum Operations Manager Kevin May, managed to work efficiently in UAMN space not occupied by visitors.

Another contributor was Lee Post of the Pratt Museum in Homer, essential for his expertise in articulating marine mammal skeletons for display. The museum’s auditorium became the place where teams readied sections of the skeleton for perfecting three-dimensional configurations, then moved those through double-wide doorway to the foyer near the UAMN’s curving stairway.

Alcan Builders, Inc. made Ed Barger available for solving local physical and mechanical glitches as they arose. Morgan Dulian of the University Foundation served as liaison to the Stroecker Foundation, as the target date for opening the bowhead whale exhibits approached.

Roger Topp, head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production, and Mareca Guthrie, fine arts curator, assembled written and illustrative materials for permanent and temporary bowhead exhibits.

By January 2021, all these institutional contributors had focused on opening the bowhead exhibits — permanent and temporary — around Memorial Day. Supportive observers, including the Friends of the UAMN, realized that normal in-person celebrations of this world-class exhibit-opening would have to be held virtually if Covid-19 strictures lingered past Memorial Day into the summer season of 2021. This series of weekly News-Miner articles was conceived to replace the parade of honorees from collaborating museums, civic and scientific leaders from communities around Alaska, and beyond, who normally would have been invited to attend an in-person celebration.

I conclude this series of short weekly articles in hopes that co-authors and I have adequately conveyed our admiration for the contributions by the University, its museum and our diverse Alaska communities. As a final indicator of admiration, I confess that when we started, I envisioned exploring virtues and ramifications of UAMN’s completing these bowhead whale exhibits in six short weekly articles. Those six would have concluded in mid-July. Herewith, this 17th article reflects how far our admiration grew beyond what I anticipated.

Dave Norton is a retired UAF research faculty member, Instructor for UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and Member of Friends of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

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