Getting tanked

Getting the colossal squid onto display isn’t just a simple matter of building a tank and moving it into the gallery!

First of all we have to plan a few details – for example, because of the size of the tank and the amount of liquid it will contain, it will weigh over five tonnes, so the building engineers have to check that the floor loadings will cope.

Then we have to consider how to get the tank into the building once it is built – it may be too wide to fit through the door, so exhibition staff will have to decide if it can be lifted into the building through a window using a crane – fortunately the museum was designed with these issues in mind, so there are windows which can be removed relatively easily to do this (we’re hoping that  Wellington’s balmy weather won’t cause any delays).

Once the tank is in place we have to fill it with preservative. 5,000 litres of preservative will have to be mixed and pumped into the tank – that’s about 25x 200 litre drums which will have to be transported into the gallery and mixed to the correct concentration in the tank – something which will have to be done when the museum is closed to the public.

In the event of an earthquake there is the risk of the tank rupturing, so to prevent a tidal wave of preservative cascading through the collections, the entire floor of the gallery has to be bunded to contain any spillage – this will involve a complete rebuild of the gallery floor!  

As the gallery is a public space we cannot use the usual formalin or alcohol preservatives, but will be trialling a propylene-glycol mixture. (Glycol is used as anti-freeze and has been used previously to preserve specimens on a smaller scale, but we will need to design the tank so that we can take samples for testing on a regular basis to check the pH for acidity and any signs of deterioration of the specimen). 

Placement of the specimen inside the tank will require the construction of some supports to keep it in place – because of the different density of parts of the specimen, some parts, such as the mantle, will float upwards, while others, such as the arms, will sink.

While preparations are underway to get the tank built, designers are working on how to light the specimen so that it can be seen: we are going to use an LED system which will enable lights to be placed inside the tank to avoid problems of reflection from the liquid surface. Then there’s the supporting display with other specimens and photographs to be prepared and labels written, printed and installed.

Not to forget the squid itself! We are still planning on how to lift 495 kg of pickled  squid out of its temporary fixing tank, into the display tank and move it from the laboratory building (about 1 kilometre away) to Cable Street. The preservation process has made the tissues much stronger and less jelly-like, but so far we haven’t been able to even turn it over to see what condition it is in without the risk of tearing the mantle.

So far things are going to plan – we hope to have a date for the display before the end of the year.

2 Responses

  1. Psychic Advice

    Thanks for the great info. I hope you’ll follow this with some more great content.

  2. Kathryn Makos

    Can you contact me off-line to discuss the safety & health precautions you are taking with this transfer? Was the specimen originally/currently preserved in formalin or ethanol? We’re planning a similar transfer & I would appreciate hearing more about your risk assessment. Kathryn Makos, CIH, Smithsonian Institution,


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