The wooden whale on the lawn near LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
Have you visited us recently? For those who have, you may have noticed a whale sculpture on the lawn near the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) signage just before you enter the museum.
Ever wondered what the story is behind the sculpture?
When news of the dead sperm whale emerged last July, a team from LKCNHM was dispatched to salvage its remains. The sperm whale came to be known as Jubilee as she was found on Singapore’s golden jubilee year, SG50.The carcass of the female sperm whale from Jurong Island was to trigger a flurry of actions ranging from tributes, features and pledges of support for the whale to become a major exhibit within LKCNHM.
Older generations of visitors to the old National Museum may remember the awesome baleen whale exhibit hanging from the ceiling.This whale was stranded at Malacca in June 1892 and was given to Malaysia in 1974. When the new natural history museum was mooted, there were plans to bring the whale back to Singapore. But in an ironic twist of fate, news of Jubilee’s stranding was to change the course of Singapore’s natural history forever.
Sculptor Ms Aileen Toh with her masterpiece during the repository on 11 April 2016. Photo by Chia Han Shen.
Upon hearing the news, Aileen Toh, a self-taught wood sculptor from the Sculpture Society of Singapore (SSS) decided to craft a beautiful and fitting tribute to Jubilee. Ms Toh constructed a whale sculpture titled “Swim Ashore” using recycled wood from an old saga tree in Fort Canning Park. Her source of inspiration and admiration for the whale came from a sense of intrigue. As she pondered, “why would a large sea creature be found in the shallow waters of Jurong Island”, let alone Singapore?
Asked to describe what feelings she expresses when she sculpts. She says it depends on what she wants to raise awareness for. Ms Toh loves to sculpt things related to our natural environment. With “Swim Ashore”, she hopes to inspire people to be “loving and protecting the environment so that sea creatures have a lovely habitat to live in”.
Constructing the Whale
This collaboration between the National Parks Board (NParks) and SSS took place at the Wood Sculpture Symposium 2016 from 21 – 25 January 2016, where sculptors participated in transforming dead trees into beautiful sculptures. In nature nothing goes to waste, and that is where the beauty of nature lies.
Working tirelessly from 9-5, Ms Toh put in more than 40 hours of work into the creation of the sculpture, including preparing the wood block from a 30 m Saga tree that was removed from Fort Canning as it was old, termite infested, and posed a risk to park users.
It was an arduous task, but she was thankfully supported by dedicated NParks staff, SSS members, students, and volunteers.
Ms Toh was grateful that “NParks could arrange for people to assist in separating parts from the larger chunks of wood”. A strenuous effort that required manpower to firstly turn over the whale and a larger chain saw to “carve out the belly”. A final coat of lacquer was painted to protect the sculpture from the elements and to give it a shiny finish.
At the end of the symposium, Ms Toh was happy for all the support that she received from sculpture students and for NPark’s support during the event. But that was not to be the end or the final resting place for the wooden whale. The guest of honour at the Symposium, Paul Tan, deputy CEO of the National Arts Council, then made the suggestion that the sculpture should be offered to LKCNHM.
The move from Fort Canning! Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
The hoist! Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
Frontal view of the whale being placed on the museum’s lawn on 19 Feb 2016. Photo by Martyn Low.
Prof Peter Ng & Aileen Toh with the sculpture on 19 Feb 2016. Photo by Martyn Low.
The Move to LKCNHM
Preparations for the move then were made after Ms Toh contacted Professor Peter Ng, the head of LKCNHM, to donate her artwork to the museum. It was a mammoth task, but made light thanks to the movers from Rhema. Heavy machinery such as the lorry crane was used to seamlessly and safely move the wooden whale to its new home . The sculpture was unveiled on the lawn of the LKCNHM on 19 February 2016.
Ms Toh still has a sense of excitement, and is “glad and honoured to have her masterpiece in the museum” alongside Jubilee. Delightedly, she exclaims “the museum is the best place this sculpture can be placed at”.
Although the whale was placed on the museum’s lawn, concerns were later raised that termites could destroy the sculpture and that the wood would decompose faster if it were left on the soil. A decision was made to move the model once more, this time onto the paved walkway. This provided Ms Toh a chance to trim, sand, and varnish the belly.
Overturning the whale before Aileen commences work! Photo by Chia Han Shen.
Aileen commencing work! Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
Sawing the belly! Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
Varnishing the belly and removing sawdust. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
Applying the final touch of lacquer. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
The repository! Photo by Tan Heok Hui.
On 11 April 2016, the same team from Rhema helped out with the repository of the whale. The move took 5.5 hours of reshuffling and adjustments as it was at risk of being damaged should people mishandle it. The solution was to set cement to adhere and hold the sculpture to prevent further movement.
Despite the difficulties that beset the wooden whale, Toh’s message remains the same. The sculpture’s plaque captures the undeterred optimism for us to appreciate and protect the fragile marine biological environment. “How did a deep sea creature end up near our offshore island? In my opinion, the marine biological environment and human activities are closely related. Ergo, the causes of their death are food for thought.”
Aileen satisfied with her masterpiece before the repository! Photo by Chia Han Shen.
The plaque containing Aileen’s thoughts on what the whale represents to her. Photo by Chia Han Shen.
The completed whale in its new location. Photo by Chia Han Shen.