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ANMM MMAPSS support ‘Old Tom’

Adriane Reardon, Eden Killer Whale Museum reassembles skeleton of famous orca ‘Old Tom’ for new display, ABC South East NSW, 29 April 2024

A skeleton of a famous orca has been given a new look through a museum’s painstaking operation to spruce up the display.(Adriane Reardon).

“Old Tom” was a male orca that worked alongside whalers to hunt baleens in Eden on the NSW far south coast last century.

Its skeleton has long been on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, but after being in the same position for nearly four decades, Old Tom required a new look.

“Old Tom is on the move,” the museum’s collection manager Angela George said.

“We’re pulling him apart, relocating him and suspending him from the ceiling.”

a black and while photo of a whale next to a group of whalers
Old Tom became famous for working alongside whalers in Eden early last century. Supplied: Eden Killer Whale Museum.

The museum received grant funding from the Australia National Maritime Museum to undertake conservation work on Old Tom and change the display.

The museum normally only closes on Christmas Day, but was required to shut for a week in order to get the mammoth task done for its star attraction.

“It’s because Old Tom is such a precious part of the collection. We need to make sure he’s protected the whole way through the process,” Ms George said.

“He’s one of a kind.”

a skeleton of a whale
Old Tom used to be based on the ground floor of the museum, before being moved to the new display. ABC South East NSW: Adriane Reardon.

Gentle, careful work

A team of volunteers and experts was called in to help disassemble the orca from its still pose at ground level.

They put the skeleton back together only metres away, but this time hanging from the ceiling.

The team had six days to do the job, which was quite a challenge, especially for Melbourne-based conservator Frances Paterson.

“We’ve been inspecting each bone, looking for condition issues, damage, cracks and checking the stability of some of the old repairs,” she said.

“We have to proceed carefully and slowly because Old Tom is very fragile.”

A woman sticks a syringe into a bone
Conservators used a number of different methods to repair and clean Old Tom’s skeleton. ABC South East NSW: Adriane Reardon.

Ms Paterson said Old Tom was in relatively good shape, considering the bones were nearly 100 years old.

Conservators focused on carefully cleaning the pores of the bones using brushes and sponges, using paint to make some touch-ups to the skeleton’s appearance.

Tissue paper and syringes with injectables were also used to fill cracks.

A collection of bones on a table with charges and tags
Old Tom’s skeleton was pulled apart and, at certain points, rearranged before he was reassembled. ABC South East NSW: Adriane Reardon.

Ms Paterson admitted it was meticulous and time-consuming but important work.

“We’re looking at granular detail. We could spend endless hours addressing every kind of flaw,” she said.

“But really, the result here is about making Tom look well cared for and respecting his age and history.”

A woman smiles at her colleague while holding a large whale bone
Frances Paterson travelled from Melbourne to help with the Old Tom project. ABC South East NSW: Adriane Reardon.

Thumbs up

A huge reason behind the decision to move Old Tom to a new location within the museum was to make corrections to the display and position the skeleton in a more realistic pose.

Old Tom is made up of 250 bones, and some of them were in the wrong position in the previous display.

Pulling the skeleton apart allowed museum preparator Dean Smith to fix that.

“There were a lot of things wrong,” he said.

“He was very straight, so there was no anatomical swimming pose and the hyoids were mounted in the wrong way.

“The flippers were around the wrong way … there were only four finger bones laid out.”

A man smiles up at a colleague whilst next to a whale's ribcage
Dean Smith has overseen the move from start to finish. ABC South East NSW: Adriane Reardon.

Old Tom, being a mammal, is meant to have five fingers, so Mr Smith’s work now means the orca has thumbs.

The ribcage was also expanded to more accurately reflect its frame, and copper wiring, which can corrode or fail when a display is suspended in the air, was replaced with new wires encased with silicone tubing.

Mr Smith said rearticulating the skeleton would help it appear more natural to visitors.

“Having Old Tom in a very straight pose across a mezzanine just wasn’t going to cut the mustard,” he said.

“You can now walk into this exhibition space and see Old Tom swimming at you.”

Leaving a legacy

Old Tom has had a huge influence on Eden’s identity and the locals within the town.

Dozens of volunteers gave up their time to help with the move and have been credited with contributing to its overall success.

Eden local John Mathieson said he was happy to help with such an iconic project.

“You don’t do this every day of your life,” he said.

“It is unique, it’s a big part of the town and this skeleton is known all over the world.”

a man smiles into the camera at the tail end of a whale skeleton
John Mathieson says he was proud to help move Old Tom. ABC South East NSW: Adriane Reardon.

But mostly, Mr Mathieson is proud to have been involved in a project that will be visible for generations to come.

“I’ve got grandkids and they will love to have a look at this and say, ‘Wow, look what Poppy did!'” he said.