Let’s Talk About…Whalebone!

13 Apr

Many visitors coming into the Museum are often drawn in by our two large sculptures which are placed in the lobby. One of our frequently asked questions is what these are made of. Many guests guess that it is a type of wood because of the porous nature of the material.  The answer is that they are made of aged whalebone. Whalebone used in sculpture is old, not new. New whalebone is oily, smells, and will splinter if carved. Therefore, the older the bone, the better it is for carving.

Abraham Anghik Ruben's (1951-) "Memories: An Ancient Past" (2010), whalebone, stone, wood, Private Collection.

MIA's Development Officer, Karolina Tomaszewska with the reverse side of Abraham Anghik Ruben's (1951-) "Memories: An Ancient Past" (2010), whalebone, stone, wood, Private Collection
Note the spot for the spinal cord to fit into!

These bones come from the base of the whale’s skull and the round holes you can see are where the spinal cord fits into the skull. Many people assume that these are vertebrae, but vertebrae look quite different.

Whale skeleton-the highlighted portion is where the bone for the sculptures comes from!

A whale vertebra

Note how the shape of the vertebra is much different from the sculptures featured in our lobby!

Karolina with Manasie Akpaliapik's (1955-) "Spirit World of the Inuit", whalebone, stone, ivory, Private Collection.
Once again, note the space where the spinal cord fits in!

Can you find other pieces made from whalebone in the Museum? Drop by and let us know! We have quite a few!

Posted by: Karolina Tomaszewska, MIA’s Development Officer

7 Responses to “Let’s Talk About…Whalebone!”

  1. Regina Gil April 14, 2012 at 7:54 PM #

    Ms. Tomaszewska,

    Very interesting and informative piece. Great pics as well! Pleased to see that you are promoting the Museum in such a positive way! Keep up the excellent work.

    Regards, Friends From The Nations Capital

  2. Chris April 20, 2012 at 10:38 AM #

    Very interesting! Excellent use of photos to help illustrate your truly wonderful explanation!

  3. Brandon Rawls June 14, 2012 at 12:33 AM #

    I love your museum! I’ve acquired a small whale bone sculpture in the form of an eskimo. I discovered it in New Jersey and I’d like more info if you can assist me.
    Brandon R.


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    […] artists use antler in their works. Find out more about materials in Inuit art, such as ivory and whalebone on the MIA […]

  2. I’ve Got A Bone to Pick! | Peek Inside the Museum of Inuit Art - July 9, 2014

    […] carvings (prior to my time, someone very eloquently explained the process of whalebone carving on this very blog so I won’t go into great detail here). I have worked with bone before, both animal and human(!), […]

  3. Exhibition Hopping – Part IV | Willy Or Won't He - September 10, 2015

    […] There is a wealth of art created by Inuit artists working in both the traditional and the modern style that deserves to be explored.  This small exhibition opened my eyes to a small portion of what is out there by one artist.  On my next visit to Toronto in May I plan to spend some time at the Museum of Inuit Art at Queen’s Quay – an attraction I must admit I had no knowledge of until I read two short pieces on the use of whale bone in Inuit carving:  I’ve Got a Bone to Pick and Let’s Talk About Whalebone. […]

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