How to Move Your Shark

Transporting very large, yet delicate, objects is a never-ending challenge for museums and art installers, and, it turns out, a continuing point of fascination for consumers of print media.

Unknown artist, “A Fish Out of Water,” 1876. Wood engraving.

The cover page for the March 25, 1876, The Illustrated Christian Weekly ran a cover illustration depicting the in-progress installation of an enormous basking shark in the British Museum with the caption, “A Fish Out of Water”, a copy of which is now in the Davison Art Center. The front page text relays that at the time of publication, the depicted basking shark, caught off the coast of the Isle of Wight, was the largest shark specimen obtained for any museum.

Although the British Museum is known today as an art museum, rather than a natural history museum, such distinctions were less clearly drawn in the nineteenth-century.

Detail of Fig. 1.

The workers in the illustration are moving the shark to a display area in the department of “zoological curiosities.” The shark is shown in a stabilizing frame; a group of workers hoist this frame along a set of tracks laid down on the stairs, where additional workers keep the frame on track with rolling dowels. The basking shark has made it to the first landing, but it still has a way to go, around a corner and up another, longer, flight of steps.

Natale Bonifacio da Sebenico after Giovanni Guerra, illustration depicting the movement of an obelisk in the series, Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, 1586. Etching.

The spectacle of moving large, unwieldy objects has been a popular subject within Western print culture for centuries. In 1585, Pope Sixtus V ordered that an Egyptian obelisk be

Image of New York Times article, “Renaissance Tapestries Aglow at the Met,” March 11, 2002.

moved from the Circus of Nero to the piazza in front of the Basilica of St. Peter. The engineering feats of sixteenth-century obelisk transport were documented in a set of lavish etchings by Natale Bonifacio.

Over 400 years later, I recall being captivated by a photograph in the New York Times showing a team of museum art handlers gently walking a rolled Renaissance tapestry up the museum’s central staircase (it wouldn’t fit in the freight elevator).

– Miya Tokumitsu, Curator of the Davison Art Center

Fig. 1-2  Published in the Illustrated Christian Weekly. DAC accession no. 2001.14.15. Open access image from the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University (photo: T. Rodriguez).

Fig. 3 The British Museum, accession no. 1947,0319.26.81. Digital image © The Trustees of the British Museum, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Fig. 4 Image via Timesmachine.