Todd Knight was one of the people behind building the blue whales at the museum. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
For more than 20 years, large blue whales have been looking down over Brisbane, but how did they get there?
The Queensland Museum’s Whale Mall was constructed in the late 1980s and remains a drawcard for tourists who come and look up with amazement at the three life-sized mammals hanging from above.
“They were built like boats; sandwich foam made over a wooden frame, before the frames were taken out and they were joined in two halves,” said Todd Knight, one of the creators.
“They have a light aluminium superstructure so they are really light.
The skeleton was made by hand at the Old Museum in Bowen Hills. (Supplied: Queensland Museum)
“The whales themselves were made in the sheds behind the Old Museum at the RNA showgrounds in Bowen Hills.”
Along with fellow museum employees Terry Tebble, Karen Mickan and Jan Williams, the team spent two years creating a bull, pregnant cow and a young calf for the museum’s breezeway.
“They were painted with two-pack paint, with one painted on and then the pattern on the whales was put on with latex,” Mr Knight said.
“If you look in the pattern you can see people’s names — anyone that worked on it had their initials on one of the whales.”
The team worked around the clock to shape and paint the large whales. (Supplied: Queensland Museum)
The barnacles were made from fiberglass and resin and were moulded by casts before being attached.
Mr Knight said during the process there was often odd requests from fellow workers.
“You would get a call at the museum saying, ‘Hey, we need help flipping a whale’.
“We would stop what we were doing and all go out to turn the whale over — we needed many hands.”
During the build, the group decided to make the tails and fins removable to make it easier to transport the whales across town.
People who helped build the whale inscribed their names on the whales between the barnacles. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
Casting a whale calf
The plan originally was to create only a bull and cow, but during the build a dead calf washed ashore near Moreton Bay.
“You very rarely get a calf that young washed ashore so it was a little destressing to have a young one washed in,” Mr Knight said.
“Unfortunately the calf couldn’t be saved so it was moved to the museum.
“Here in the preparation workshop we used foam inside of him to bring his shape to size before we cast him.
“His skeleton now remains part of the collection in the museum.”
It took many hands to put the whales together once they arrived at the museum. (Supplied: Queensland Museum)
The two large whales and calf are a constant presence above museum visitors. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
Putting the whales in place
It was a major mission to hang the whales in place at the time, even without the Cultural Centre busway which now stands near the entrance of the Whale Mall.
“We had an International Whale Conference happening here at the time so we were building it in the lead up to that to be unveiled then,” Mr Knight said.
Streets were shut and a large semi-trailer enabled the team to move the whales six kilometres from Bowen Hills to the museum at South Bank.
“Once we were at the museum they craned it in onto the top deck and the whales were cradled there for a little while,” Mr Knight said.
“They only just fit under the roof before being put into position in the mall.”
The whales were delivered to South Bank on the back of a semi-trailer. (Supplied: Queensland Museum)
The fibreglass whales were craned into the museum after being built off site. (Supplied: Queensland Museum )
Keeping the whales in tip-top shape
Mr Knight said the whales often attracted interesting objects, as well as dust, often making them hard to clean.
“We wash them as dust accumulates on them and other things appear atop of them like paper planes,” he said.
“Sometimes school kids throw their hats up there on top of the whale so we have to get the cherry picker out to get it off.”
Visitors to the Queensland Museum often double take at the size of the models. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
Hats, dust and paper aeroplanes often end up on top of the whales. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
He said it was satisfying seeing the whales still hanging outside the museum.
“It’s testament to the good work that went into building them and they’re well looked after by the staff here.
“It’s a nostalgic thing when you look at it.
“It was such an adventure. We planned everything out in scale and for me it was a great new thing to learn and see straight out of high school — these huge things develop out of nothing.
“It’s really nice that people still get a kick out of them, and earlier people were wandering past staggered by the size, they don’t realise just how big they are.”
The whales sit above the walkway used by hundreds of Brisbanites each day. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)