The Malm Whale, Natural History Museum Göteborg

§ 1 i A. W. Malm's last will & testament: The specimen must not be called anything but 'The Malm Whale' (the only stuffed blue whale in the world)

The discovery…

On October 29th, 1865, a young blue whale beaches in the Askim bay outside Göteborg. Olof Larsson, a local fisherman, finds it and struggles for two days alongside his brother-in-law to kill ‘this horrible beast’. They sell it to August Malm, curator at the Göteborg Museum of Natural History. Malm sees the opportunity to make a scientific dream come true. He will preserve everything. From James Robertson Dickson, Malm receives 1500 riksdaler to pay the fishermen, and the enormous task begins. There is no time to lose, as the carcass has already begun to decompose. Besides, it is vital to save the colossus from spectators who wish to obtain souvenirs.

First transport… and a speech

The whale is towed by three steamers and two coal barges to the slipway at Lindholmen, where Malm addresses the crowd from atop the whale’s back. One week after its first discovery, the whale is cut into sections. Malm has taken many photographs and thorough measurements, and the body has been opened in various places to release gas pressure. The stench is indescribable, and ‘ten sturdy butcher boys’ and twice as many assistant workers are offered an unlimited supply of strong drink to be able to do their job. Malm personally makes the first incisions with his scalpel. The blubber is removed, the vital organs lifted out and cleaned with a fire hose. More photographs are taken. Malm has invested 15 000 riksdaler from his own pocket, and is anxious to make a profit. When he is forced to take a break due to acute nausea, disaster strikes. Despite the patrolling police and the discouraging posters, parts of the whale disappear. The spectators have paid 25 öre each and now raid the place to steal whatever they can.

To Norra Hamngatan…

The following day, the sections of the whale are taken on barges to the museum on Norra Hamngatan. All the skin strips are hung out to dry on a wooden structure once the fat has been removed. They are brushed with custom-made brushes. The skeleton has been boiled elsewhere, and is now cleaned in the inner museum courtyard. A sculptor makes wooden replicas of the tail and fins, which are then put inside the tanned skin.

A construction…

With the aid of his previous measurements and photographs, Malm prepares a sketch of the whale in scale 1:10. This is the basis for a model which is photographed, and replicated with a cast. A slender, life-size pine structure will be the final construction on which to mount the skin. It is shaped much like a boat, and similar in construction, with ribs and an outside planking. With future transports in mind, it is made in four detachable sections. The upper jaw opens like a lid on hinges (‘since many people might find it interesting to penetrate all the way into the abdomen’).

The hide…

The whale skin has been prepared alternately with salt and absorbing sawdust, and finally with powderised ball clay. Next, it is washed and the inside is coated with a saturated arsenic solution. It is mounted on frames with some 30 000 zinc and copper nails. By mid April it is beginning to dry. Any oil seepage is wiped off with turpentine. The outside is also covered in arsenic, mercuric chloride and a topcoat of colourless copal varnish. But when the skin is ready to be put on the whale frame, a slight problem ensues. The measurements are all wrong, since they have been taken from just one side of the creature, which was impossible to turn over at the time. There is not enough skin! The project is about to collapse. But the taxidermist, Malmgren, solves the problem and shifts the gap to the bottom of the construction, where it can be bridged with planking – a detail which is not mentioned in the papers documenting this process. On the contrary, they speak instead of the supreme perfection of the construction…

Exhibit… and tour

The tour starts in the new customs building. The entry fee, one riksdaler for adults, half price for children, becomes subject to much discussion. Rumour has it that it will be much cheaper during the upcoming tour to Paris, London and other places. But protesters are told that the price is set this high to ward off the immense crowd. The great work is not yet finished. Later on, the fees will go down.

Stockholm – The 1866 Industry and Art Fair

Crammed into six boxcars, the whale is taken to the capital to be displayed at the exhibition. Malm attends with lieutenant von Gegerfelt, to assemble this ‘monster of the deep on dry land’. Three paintings by Gustaf Brusewitz contribute to the installation, along with plaques naming famous cetologists, and a portrait of Malm. The royalty drinks coffee and Arrack Punsch in the belly of the whale, which is now clad in blue cloth with golden stars, and furnished with benches and little tables.

After Stockholm…

The plan is that the whale should keep touring after its appearance in Stockholm, according to the fifth paragraph in Malm’s will. Copenhagen, Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, London and several other cities are included in the route. Despite some success, the venture suffers from economic problems, and the whale is confiscated. Once again, Dickson has to pay its ransom. It is finally taken back ‘home’.


For a long time, the whale remains in crates in the house of the East India Company on Norra Hamngatan. It is not until the 1870s that it is rebuilt. In 1880, the press mentions ‘The Whale museum with its rich collections’, and in 1892 the Malm Whale is described as a first-rate attraction. During 1894-96 the museum undergoes a thorough renovation, and introduces a whale hall with galleries. The skeleton is now hung above the whale.

The mouth of sin…

From the start, visitors had been able to go inside the whale. Just before the turn of the century this opportunity is withheld, since a young couple is discovered inside while sharing an inappropriate moment. Until now, the place has been a very popular and romantic spot. The jaws remain closed until 1939, when the whale is used as a fundraiser for the war victims in Finland. Since then, it is opened only on special occasions, such as anniversaries and for Christmas, when Santa Claus appears inside. Another occasion for opening is the Swedish election day every four years, ‘valdagen’ which also literally means ‘whale day’.

Last transport… here

In 1923, the Natural History Museum in Slottsskogen is opened, but the whale is moved as early as 1918. A hole is made in the wall of the old museum, and the four whale sections are drawn by horses through town. The sections and the skeleton are hauled into the new whale hall, and the remaining wall is bricked up.


Source: Leviatan från Göteborg, Grönberg & Magnusson, Glänta Produktion, 2002.


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One Comment

  1. Posted November 17, 2015 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I live in Gothenburg but hadn’t been to visit Mr Malm Whale until Sunday. I wrote a little bit about it along with a couple of pictures.

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The royalty drinks coffee and Arrack Punsch in the belly of the animal, which is now clad in blue cloth with golden stars, and furnished with benches and little tables.