This past weekend, I had an opportunity to visit the Royal Ontario Museum, checking another North American natural history museum off my bucket list. There’s plenty to say about the ROM, but I’d like to focus on Great Whales: Up Close and Personal, a temporary exhibition that opened this summer. Great Whales is, in a word, magnificent. It is among the very best natural history exhibits I’ve seen in recent years—no small feat given that much of its development occurred in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
An exhibit is a story told through physical space, made up of words, objects, images, sounds, and experiences. Great Whales leverages all of these tools to not only immerse visitors in the multi-faceted world of giant whales, but also evoke feelings of awe, reverence, and humility. More than any exhibit or wildlife documentary in recent memory, Great Whales captures the humbling effect of real encounters with the natural world.
The presence of three real whales is a major part of this. The colossal skeletons of a sperm whale, a blue whale, and a right whale dominate the space, but they are introduced as individuals, rather than specimens. They each have a name and a story: for example, the right whale Alasuwinu was found dead on Epekwitk/Prince Edward Island in 2017. Scientists had tracked this adult male for many years and he had survived a number of close calls with fishing nets, but he ultimately perished after being struck by a boat.
The ethereal atmosphere of the exhibition is also powerful. The whale skeletons are bathed in a blue glow, casting mesmerizing shadows on the walls and ceilings. Sounds of the ocean—including whale songs—can be heard throughout. In one corner, the whale songs are played at their true volume, which is loud and deep enough to feel in your bones. It’s hard not to imagine sailors from centuries past lying awake at night and hearing those eerie rumbles through the hulls of their ships.
However, I think the exhibition’s biggest strength is that it is told through multiple voices. One of those voices is the standard, omniscient museum voice, through which we learn about the biomechanics of hearts and lungs on a massive scale, as well as the evolution of whales (which could be an exhibit all its own). We also hear from scientists, including ROM mammalogy technician Jacqueline Miller. In one video, Miller recounts the experience of breaking down the blue whale (named Blue), which was found trapped by shifting ice in 2014. She describes the overpowering stench and the overwhelming amount of gore, but also the excitement of turning a tragedy into an opportunity to learn something new and maybe help other whales in the future.
Most unique to a science exhibition like this one is the recurring presence of Indigenous Elders, artists, and storytellers. Wolastoq artist and cultural educator Possesom Paul describes whales as ancient partners of humans—powerful, mysterious, but also vulnerable. In two areas of the exhibit, we hear Passamaquoddy Elder Maggie Paul singing the song All My People, which honors the whales. As a non-Native person, I felt privileged that these perspectives were being shared with me. These ways of knowing do not conflict with the scientific ones—instead, they complement one another and provide visitors with more pathways to connect with the exhibition content.
Traditional and scientific perspectives converge in the exhibit’s conservation message. Choice statistics make the plight of whales in the industrialized world particularly stark. I’ve been unable to forget one infographic informing me that 10% of the right whale population has died since 2017—equivalent to losing every person in North and South America. Another graphic illustrates how precious each individual whale is: a wall of polaroid photos introduces us to most of the 300-some right whales alive today.
Great Whales is poignant, thought-provoking, and often beautiful, representing the best of what a natural history exhibit can be. It will be on display at the ROM until March 2022. It’s unclear if it will travel after that, but I very much hope it does.