Whales: From Bone to Book

Natural History is more than just bones and fossils in a museum drawer…

Studying natural history is about discovering objects in the natural world and translating their meaning into scientific knowledge.  Whales—From Bone to Book, a Smithsonian Libraries exhibition located in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, traces the fascinating journey of how Smithsonian scientists study the largest and most intelligent mammals on the planet: whales.
The exhibition describes how the bones and fossils of these amazing animals make their way from discovery on a beach or in rock strata, into the museum’s vast collections, and finally to publications that share new knowledge about the natural history of whales, past, present and future. For 125 years the Smithsonian has had a tradition of studying whales, and its collections of modern and fossil whales are peerless in the world.  At the same time, the Smithsonian Libraries have collected the resources to provide context for and enable the study of the Museum’s whale collection. Whales—From Bone to Book, shows how the process of scientific discovery takes place only with the vast resources of the Libraries.

Whales are the most unlikely of mammals…

At first glance, whales share few similarities with most other mammals. A keen observer, however, would note that besides their flippers, fluke, and streamlined form, they possess hallmark mammalian traits: they breathe air; they bear live young that drink milk; and they are warm-blooded. However, they are elusive. They spend 99% of their lives underwater, and scientists know little about their overall natural history even though humans have hunted many species to the brink of extinction. Today, Smithsonian scientists and staff continue the legacy of investigation begun in the 19th century by building natural history collections of whale specimens.

Science and art demand skill, perseverance and inspiration …

The National Museum of Natural History’s scientific illustration collections are based on the museum’s specimen collection, and include pen-and-ink, prints and printer’s blocks. Whales—From Bone to Book showcases how scientists and artists collaborate at the Smithsonian, creating illustrations that reveal the whales’ evolutionary past, including their transition from land to sea. (See SYDNEY PRENTICE (1873–1943):The Art of Drawing Fossil Whale Bones) Knowledge of whale evolution now represents a case study in macroevolution.  Though technology continues to change how artists interpret bones and fossils, the need to illustrate natural history, as a pathway to understanding the vast diversity of the natural world, remains ever present.