Building Field Museum's beasts a giant undertaking

It was a tight squeeze.

Tu Hononga is 58 feet 4 inches long. Swaddled in blubber, he weighed about 70 tons. Sue, the T. rex looming over tourists in the building’s main hall, the Field Museum’s most famous resident, will have reason to feel jealous: Alive, she weighed roughly 15,000 pounds (or 71/2 tons). Her bones measure 42 feet. Tu Hononga’s lower jaw alone measures 18 feet; it resembles an extra-streamlined kayak. Before he arrived, Field Museum workers spent days preparing, measuring and remeasuring the entrances. The exhibit arrived in 40-foot shipping containers, two of which were occupied by Tu Hononga’s head.

Neither fit into the Field’s freight elevator, so the doors to the south entrance were removed. The cranium was lifted by a crane up the steps and rolled into the museum. As it moved across the threshold, its crate rose over a plate in the floor. A gasp was heard from museum employees. Then the box slid through, without a scrape. Shoulders lowered. Tu Hononga’s head cleared the door with 3/4 of an inch to spare.

Tu Hononga is demanding.

He was named by the Iwi, the Maori tribe in New Zealand that found him on Karekare Beach, on the country’s western shore. His name means “the connection” and serves as a reminder that Tu Hononga is a flesh-and-blood link between the tribe and the ocean. Whale bones “carry a lot of spiritual and cultural weight with Maori,” said Moana Parata, a collections manager with the Te Papa Museum of New Zealand, which organized the traveling exhibit. Parata, who is Maori herself, traveled to Chicago with three others from Te Papa to install the exhibit — and to be certain the construction of Tu Hononga was handled with respect.

Indeed, a year ago, when Tom Skwerski, the Field Museum’s program manager of exhibitions, received the contract from Te Papa for the show, it held a number of stipulations. A whale rider, so to speak. For instance, while Tu Hononga — and the seven other skeletons in “Giants of the Deep” — were assembled, no food or drink was allowed near him. “It was considered disrespectful to have too many people milling around,” Skwerski said. Construction workers were not to step over or sit against boxes containing bones. Also, no foul language or shouting was allowed.

A week or so after the bones arrived, I found Robert Clendon, a Te Papa conservator, his face somber, concentrated. He was standing on a ladder in the exhibition hall, assembling a pygmy right whale, suspended from the ceiling. He held screws in his mouth and one of the whale’s ribs against its spine. He hooked his hand around the skeleton, screwed the rib into place.

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