Whaling: Poles apart

Thursday 26 March 2015

WhalingThe University of St Andrews’ Special Collections team is putting on an exhibition at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther titled ‘Poles Apart: changing attitudes to whaling in the 20th century’, which opens this Friday (March 27, 2015 running until May 31, 2015).

Bringing together scientific papers, sperm whale bones, harpoons and knives the exhibition tells the story of two whaling industries in the Arctic and Antarctic.

The exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the dwindling Arctic whaling industry in Dundee during the late 19th century, through the local reaction to a curious whale exploring the river Tay, right up to the large scale pelagic whaling industry in the Southern Ocean around South Georgia during the 20th century – leading to the work of the Discovery Committee which was set up to research the sustainability of industry.

What makes this exhibition unique is that it shares insights not only into the industries themselves, but the opinions of those involved in the whaling industry.

The archival material being used in the exhibition was found during a cataloguing project, titled ‘Taming the Leviathan’, which  aimed to catalogue and promote material from the University’s collection of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson papers and the papers of the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews relating to the whaling industry in South Georgia. At the outset these records were expected to be purely scientific, but the collection held a great surprise for scientists, historians and archivists alike: as the personal opinions of those involved in the whaling industry were revealed. These opinions became the basis for the whaling exhibition.

What comes to light are concerns stretching back to the early 20th century about the number of whales being killed and the sustainability of the industry.

A note from 1938 observes: “The numbers of whales taken is now so great as to menace the industry with decline and quite possibly collapse in the near future.”

This warning was poles apart from the perspective of D’Arcy Thompson whose perspective in 1914 was simply:

“Man must be fed and clothed, women must be adorned.”

On top of the newly discovered whaling papers found at the University of St Andrews, this exhibition is using objects from various local museums, and some from a little further afield.

Project Archivist Fiona Menzies, one of the organisers of the exhibition, said:

“Other museums from the local area, such as the Fife Folk Museum and the Dundee Heritage trust, have been kind enough to loan us some really interesting objects to complement the archival material. We will have various harpoons and knives used in both the Arctic and Antarctic, and some examples of the products made from the industry. We do have one item that has travelled a very long way which is a bar of soap, kindly loaned from the South Georgia Museum.”

This is no ordinary bar of soap. During the 20th century, whale oil was used for a huge number of purposes including animal feed, margarine and soap. This is an example of a soap product from 1950 made with whale oil and iris-scented.

Menzies continued:

“We hope that this exhibition will appeal to a wide variety of visitors to the Fisheries Museum. From those interested in the whaling industry in Dundee to those who have an interest in sustainability. We hope that everyone will find something of interest in the exhibition.”

Now that the Sea Mammal Research Unit archive has been catalogued and available through the Special Collections online catalogue, researchers are already beginning to use the collection in their current research. The collection not only contains information on the number of whales caught, but also gives biological information on whales and meteorological research notes taken in the Antarctic during the 20th century. The hope is that this exhibition will not only educate visitors about the whaling industry, but will also promote the new understandings of population change and conservation issues.


Photos are available from the Press Office, contact 01334 462 108.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum, St Ayles, Harbourhead, Anstruther, Fife, KY10 3AB is open (31 March): Mon – Sat: 1000 – 1630 hours, Sun: 12 – 1630 hours. From 1 April: Mon – Sat: 1000 – 1730 hours, Sun: 1100 – 1700 hours. Last admissions one hour before closing.

Admission costs Adult: £8.00, concession: £6.00 (Seniors, Disabled & Student), child: free (max 5 children up to 16yrs, accompanied by an adult), members: free.

The ‘Taming the Leviathan’ was funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the National Cataloguing Grants Foundation. For background go to: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/library/specialcollections/collections/archives/projects/tamingtheleviathan/

For details of the Scottish Fisheries Museum go to: http://www.scotfishmuseum.org/

Category Research

Related topics

Share this story