Research Can Get Messy


6StudentsVolunteersResearchers from the New Brunswick Museum and other organizations conduct a whale necropsy near Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

Sometimes research can get a little messy. At least when you are conducting an animal autopsy, called a necropsy, on the largest mammal on the planet.

That’s what Mary Sollows, the New Brunswick Museum’s Curatorial Technician in Zoology, and Madelaine Empey, a Student Zoology Assistant, discovered when they joined a team of researchers from the Marine Animal Rescue Society, Dalhousie University, the Atlantic Veterinary College and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to study a young female blue whale found floating dead in the ocean near Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

The blue whale, which measures up to 34 metres long and can weigh up to 150 tons, is an endangered species. There are only about 600 to 1500 blue whales left in the North Atlantic.

Threatened by pollution, climate change, declining food supply and collisions with boats, the deck is stacked against the blue whale’s survival. That’s why it was so important for researchers to examine the blue whale’s body to find out why it died and to collect samples, including those destined for the New Brunswick Museum’s marine mammal research collection, one of the largest in Canada.

7Carcass2ndDayThe Blue Whale carcass on the second day of the necropsy.

In The Thick Of It

The blue whale’s body was pulled to shore where the necropsy began. If your image of an autopsy comes from an episode of the television show CSI, well, this was nothing like that.

To dissect this enormous mammal required an excavator, dump trucks and industrial cables. It starts with the whale being “flensed” – a process where the blubber is peeled back by high-tension cables. Think peeling a banana. (We’re sorry to leave you with that image!)

Credit: Marine Animal Response Society

A large blood clot was found among the thoracic vertebrae, a possible clue as to the cause of death. One theory was that the whale became trapped under ice and drowned.  However, it may takes months before a conclusion can be reached, and given the advanced state of decomposition, a definitive answer may never be known.

Deep in the thick of it, literally, was the New Brunswick Museum’s Mary Sollows. She was joined by her (apparently extremely supportive) husband Ken Sollows. The pair focused on recovering the baleen plates that hang in the mouth of all non-toothed whales. Baleen is made of keratin (the same material that makes up human hair and nails), and blue whales have hundreds of plates that hang from the upper jaw providing a sieve-like function that strains food from the water.

Meanwhile Madelaine helped remove the tough, fibrous, tissue that surrounds the bones of the vertebral column that extends into the tail. She then worked with others to separate the various elements of the backbone.

91Maddie BaleenThe New Brunswick Museum’s Madelaine Empey collecting baleen samples.

Vital Research

It was tough, messy and smelly work, but Mary and Madelaine collected important samples of blubber, muscle, baleen and bone. While the New Brunswick Museum has an extensive collection of whale materials, these are the first New Brunswick Museum samples from a blue whale.

93MaryTissueSamplesMary Sollows, with cryovials of frozen Blue Whale tissue, stands by the NB Museum frozen tissue collection. This specialized freezer can house up to 30,000 samples at -80o C.

These kinds of samples are vital for research. For example, baleen samples from other whales   have been used to study aging, contaminant loads, feeding ecology, movements and more.

Once back home at the New Brunswick Museum Collections and Research Centre, Madelaine and Mary spent a day cleaning and preparing the collected samples for the research collection. While air-drying, the baleen will be monitored for mold and insects and, once dry, will go through a freeze/thaw/refreeze cycle to ensure any insect pests are dead.

Blue whale muscle and blubber samples are a rare commodities for researchers, so the samples collected will become part of the Museum’s frozen tissue collection, an archive available  for future research.

The loss of an endangered young blue whale is heartbreaking but researchers from the New Brunswick Museum and other organizations took the opportunity to learn more about the life of this beautiful creature to help scientists better understand and protect this species.

It’s part of the Museum’s ongoing research into our natural environment.

With information from Madelaine Empey, Mary Sollows and Dr. Donald McAlpine.

To learn more


New Brunswick Museum Participates in Blue Whale Necropsy

The Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus, is the largest mammal on earth, measuring up to 34 m and weighing up to 150 tons. There are 600 – 1500 Blue Whales in the North Atlantic with pollution, climate change, lack of food and boat collisions being the main threats to this endangered species.

Tragically, one of these blue whales was spotted dead on May 2nd floating off the coast of Liverpool, Nova Scotia. It is believed to be the same whale observed dead in March off the coast of Newfoundland.  While dead whales are an important source of biological information, determining cause of death for any endangered species is often a priority.  This case was no exception. To facilitate a necropsy (autopsy of a dead animal), and collect samples for later research, the 18 m juvenile female whale was towed to a beach where researchers had easy access.

The necropsy, directed by Andrew Reid of the Marine Animal Rescue Society (MARS) and veterinarians Drs. Pierre-Yves Daoust, Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC), and Chris Harvey-Clark, Dalhousie University, involved various collaborators. Among the latter was the New Brunswick Museum. On May 11th, Mary Sollows, NBM Curatorial Technician in Zoology, and Madelaine Empey, Student Zoology Assistant, travelled to Liverpool to join the necropsy team. Working against tides and time, they joined veterinary students from the AVC, marine biology students from Dalhousie University, associates from MARS and the Oceanographic Environmental Research Society (OERS), and employees of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).The goal was to try and determine how the whale died and, for Mary and Madelaine, to collect samples for addition to the NBM marine mammal research collection, one of the largest in Canada.

1Wimmer DaoustTonya Wimmer (second from left) Marine Animal Rescue Society, discussing necropsy with Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust (third from left), Atlantic Veterinary College.

2DaoustHarveyClarkReidDr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, Andrew Reid and Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark survey the Blue Whale prior to the necropsy.

Conducting a necropsy on an animal that weighs many tons requires lots of people, but also demands the use of heavy equipment, including an excavator, dump trucks, and industrial cables. It is also a costly process that in this case was funded by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who have legal responsibility for the management of marine mammals in Canadian waters. On the first day of the necropsy the whale was lying on its right side with its head to the water and tail shoreward. Typically, large whales are flensed (the term used for butchering a whale) in much the same way a banana is peeled.  Length-wise cuts are made from the head back to the tail, a hole is cut in the blubber, a strap or cable inserted and attached to the excavator, and the blubber peeled back in sections under tension.   The work, messy and stinky, requires two attributes of those involved- a strong dose of zoological curiosity and a weak sense of smell! There were two jobs for those not directly involved in assessing the cause of death: cutting the muscle and sinew from the whale skeleton, and hooking the tissue that was removed and placing it in the backhoe of the excavator for disposal. Periodically, the excavator would place the tissue in a garbage truck for transport to a composting facility in Truro, Nova Scotia.

3Ventral viewVentral view of the Blue Whale, the head towards the water and the tail in front of the excavator.

4BackhoeMuscleSinewBlue Whale muscle and sinew was placed in the excavator backhoe prior to disposal.

5BackhoeDumptruckDiscarded Blue Whale tissue was transported by dump truck to Truro, Nova Scotia, for composting.

6StudentsVolunteersStudents and volunteers spend three days undertaking a necropsy and de-fleshing the skeleton of the Blue Whale.

A large blood clot was found among the thoracic vertebrae associated with two fractured vertebral processes. Veterinarians were not certain this was correlated with the death of the whale, but this injury and numerous other notes and measurements were added to the necropsy report. There have been suggestions that the whale may have become trapped under ice and drowned.  However, it may be some months before a conclusion on cause of death can be reached, and given the advanced state of decomposition, a definitive answer may never be known.

On the morning of the second day, volunteers arrived to find that the tide had moved the whale overnight and that it was lying parallel to the shore, its back facing the water. The swell, constantly pounding the body, had broken some of the bones and swept others away. The beach was searched for any of the missing skeletal elements, in particular because Dr. Harvey-Clarke plans to assemble the full skeleton. When the morning tide receded, the tail was cut away from the body and moved by excavator to a location higher on the beach. Half of the team then worked on the body of the whale and the other on the tail section. Mary Sollows, joined by her husband, Ken Sollows (what was he thinking when he volunteered for this adventure!), invested considerable time cutting away the baleen plates that hang in the mouth of all non-toothed whales. Baleen is made of keratin (the same material that makes up human hair and nails), with the 270 to 395 plates that hang from the upper jaw in the Blue Whale providing a sieve-like function that strains food organisms from the water. Baleen samples now in the New Brunswick Museum from previous whale strandings have supported a variety of research projects and can be used to study aging, contaminant loads, feeding ecology, movements and more; so salvaging baleen from this whale was considered a priority.

7Carcass2ndDayOn the second morning of the necropsy it was found that the tide had shifted the Blue Whale carcass.

8MaryKenBaleenMary and Ken Sollows collecting Blue Whale baleen for transport to the NB Museum.

9BonesBaleendumptruckBones and baleen were transported by dump truck to a site for composting and further cleaning before reconstruction of the skeleton can begin.

Madelaine spent much of the second day helping remove the tough, fibrous, tissue that surrounds the bones of the vertebral column that extend into the tail. The narrow part of the tail, referred to as the peduncle, powers the whale’s movement, and is the strongest part of the animal. Surprisingly, the tail flukes contain no bone beyond the few small tail vertebrae; the front flippers however include most of the same bones present in a human hand, testament to the terrestrial ancestory of whales. Whales even have a vestigial pelvic girdle, although their hind legs disappeared long ago. Work on the tail complete, Madelaine then worked with others to separate the various elements of the backbone.

91Maddie BaleenMadelaine Empey cleaning Blue Whale baleen.

By day three Andrew Reid, and Drs.  Daoust and Harvey-Clark were overseeing completion of the necropsy and preparation of the skeletal remains for trucking to the Truro Agricultural College for composting and cleaning.   Meanwhile, Mary and Madelaine collected their prized samples of blubber, muscle, baleen, and a bone for transport to the NBM. Although the NBM includes a good representation of different species of whales this is the first Blue Whale material added to the collection.

Once at the New Brunswick Museum Collections and Research Centre, Madelaine and Mary spent a day preparing the collected samples for the research collection. The baleen section collected, made up of 10 plates joined by gum tissue, was cleaned manually of sand, rocks, seaweed and trimmed of gum tissue before drying. A mild dish detergent was applied using toothbrushes and scrub brushes to the hair-like baleen strands to remove grease.  While air drying, the baleen will be monitored for mold and insects and once dry will  go through a freeze/thaw/refreeze cycle to ensure any insect pests are dead before being added to the research collection.

92IMGP0483Madelaine Empey lays out the various samples of Blue Whale baleen, bone, tissue, and blubber retrieved following 3 days of effort.

The single bone retained by the NBM was quite clean when collected and it has only been necessary to brush it clean and leave it to dry. Blubber collected will remain frozen as part of the NBM frozen tissue collection, an archive of samples available  to researchers as required (one can rarely go out and collect endangered whale tissue just when one has a need for it!). Muscle tissue has been preserved in 95% ethyl alcohol and is stored at -80o C, with additional material dried and stored in desiccant.

93MaryTissueSamplesMary Sollows, with a cryovials of frozen Blue Whale tissue, stands by the NB Museum frozen tissue collection. This specialized freezer can house up to 30,000 samples at -80o C

Already assigned a NB Museum catalogue (NBM 018058), full data associated with the Blue Whale necropsy will be added to the electronic NB Museum Mammal database. These important specimens will be available for loan to researchers globally, just as the hundreds of thousands of other NBM natural history specimens are, each playing its role in helping to conserve the life forms we share the planet with.

Madelaine A. Empey, Mary C. Sollows and Donald F. McAlpine
Zoology Section, Department of Natural Science, New Brunswick Museum


Fred Ross

Fred Ross was born in Saint John, NB, on 12 May 1927. His contributions to New Brunswick’s art community spanned more than sixty-five years and he was one of the province’s most recognized and influential painters. Some of his formative art training took place under Violet Amy Gillett (1898-1996) and Ted Campbell (1904-1985) at the Saint John Vocational School in the mid-1940s. After completing two major mural projects, Ross was able to travel to Mexico to view the work of other muralists. Unable to obtain significant commissions for large-scale works, he turned to the work of Renaissance masters for inspiration and in 1953 travelled to Italy to study their work. Upon his return he taught in the art department of Saint John Vocational school until 1970 when he retired to paint full time. Throughout his career, Ross’ working method included an extensive review of the continuum of artistic developments as source material for his own work. To that end he developed and maintained an extensive research and comparative library of reference material.  Fred Ross died in Saint John on 19 August 2014.

A67-140 - Fred Ross - Boy with White Helmet
Boy with White Helmet, 1965
tempera and ink on Masonite
106 x 75 cm
Gift of Reeves & Sons Limited, 1967 (A67.140)

A significant component of Ross’ figurative work in the 1960s and 1970s explored the relationship among artist, subject and viewer and his work showed an affinity with Balthus [Balthasar Klossowski] (1908-2001) a French-born painter of Polish descent who worked primarily in Switzerland and who was one of the most important figurative painters of the twentieth century. In Ross’ 1965 painting, Boy with White Helmet, a handsome and confident motorcyclist in a black leather jacket evokes all the swagger associated with the coming of age of the post-WWII generation.

1995-21(3) - Fred Ross - Still Life with Pointe Shoes
Still Life with Pointe Shoes
, 1989
acrylic, casein tempera and pastel on board
102 x 71 cm
Gift of Vivian Campbell, 1995 (1995.21)

In the 1980s, Ross concentrated his efforts on the still-life making use of objects to symbolize the figure. Bathed in a soft and clear light, Fred Ross’ painting, Still Life with Pointe Shoes, is filled with allusions. There is a complex language superimposed on the obvious representation of objects in this image. These items can be interpreted as representations of masculinity and femininity or they may even refer to particular individuals. Ross’s fascination with the exotic patterning of the rug is contrasted with the three-dimensional volume and coldness of the decanter and the soft smoothness of the pointe shoes. With a minimum of colour, tone and form, Ross has conjured a masterful work that is filled with charm, mystery and timelessness.

Exploring BiotaNB 2016 – Common Species

While Aaron Fairweather was searching for an as-of-yet undescribed species of ant, two other members of the day’s Mount Sagamook expedition, Dr. Stephen Clayden and summer student Victor Szymanski, were compiling a collection of all the plant species in a defined area near the summit.

Unlike their ant-collecting colleague, Stephen and Victor were collecting common, or well-known, species such as shrubs, small trees, even blueberries, among other plants. It’s what Stephen calls a “representative collection of things.”

Victor Szymanski collects a birch specimen.

Although the species they were collecting are relatively well-known, it fits well with the Biota mandate of building up a collection that documents the diversity of flora and fauna in a particular region. And in this particular area on Mount Sagamook, the species are very diverse. Stephen is able to quickly point out that there could be as many as 25-30 species of lichens on the rocks immediately in front of him.

Stephen Clayden points out the many lichen species (25-30)
located in the area immediately surrounding him.

There can also be new knowledge gained from common species. This new knowledge can be gained by comparing populations with those from other areas. Modern techniques with DNA can also yield new insights. Just because they are common species does not mean that they don’t still have secrets to reveal.

Once specimens are collected, they are placed in a plant press and brought back to the lab where they will dry out and be used for further study.

Victor places a specimen in the plant press, to be brought
back to the lab and dried for further study.

Recently Conserved Paintings from the New Brunswick Museum Collection

A regular part of the care of a collection is the effort to ensure its preservation. Another facet of a museum’s goal is to share the collection with the public through exhibition. Sometimes objects are unable to be displayed because their condition compromises the artist’s intent or exposing them may actually cause more damage. Over the past thirty years the New Brunswick Museum was engaged in an ongoing fine art conservation project in conjunction with the Provincial Fine Art Conservation Laboratory located at the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, New Brunswick. The works listed below have received recent conservation treatment by now-retired Fine Art Conservator of New Brunswick, Adam Karpowicz.

Most venerable museums have artifacts in their care that require some attention. Sometimes significant objects that merit preservation are acquired even though they may not be in prime display condition. Oftentimes the material used by artists, either the varnish or glazes, can deteriorate or change over time. Sometimes the methods used to frame a work may compromise the structure and appearance. Occasionally an item might sustain some accidental damage. Whatever the reason, in order to ensure the long term preservation of the work, an intervention is necessary.

These photos show the paintings before and after Adam Karpowicz applied conservation techniques. His work breathes new life into these paintings, ensuring that the artist’s intention is once again visible.

Kenneth Keith Forbes (Canadian, 1892 – 1980)
The Right Honourable Richard Bedford Bennett, Prime Minister of Canada (1930-1935), 1938
oil on canvas
Bequest of the Right Honourable Richard Bedford, Viscount Bennett, 1948 (1948.5)

Attributed to Thomas Hanford Wentworth (American, 1781 – 1849)
Portrait of an Unidentified Man
(Possibly Charles Humphrey), c. 1835
oil on canvas
New Brunswick Museum Collection (X16481)

John Christopher Miles (Canadian, 1832 – 1911)
Woodland Fishing Scene with Boy, c. 1880
oil on canvas
Gift of Kenneth Allison Wilson, 1954 (1954.165)


John Thomas Stanton (Canadian, c. 1815 – 1866)
after Richard Wilson (British, 1713 – 1782)
The Ruined Temple, 1856
oil on millboard
Purchase, 2004 (2004.13)


Artist Unknown (American School)
Bark Mary Rideout of St. Andrews, N.B., 1868
reverse-painted oil on glass
Purchase, 2010 (2010.36)

Michael Anderson (Scottish or Canadian, 1824 – 1853)
Aaron and Hur Staying Up the Hands of Moses during the Battle with the Amalekites at Rephidim, 1850
oil on canvas
Purchase, 1958 (A58.30)


John Christian Schetky (Scottish, 1778-1874)
Battle of the Chesapeake and the Shannon, c. 1815
oil on canvas
John Clarence Webster Canadiana Collection (W1609)

Albert Gallatin Hoit (American, 1809 – 1856)
Mary Ann (Maria) Street Berton Beckwith, 1837
oil on canvas
Gift of the Estate of Sir John Douglas Hazen, 1959 (1959.57)

Albert Gallatin Hoit (American, 1809 – 1856)
John Adolphus Beckwith, 1837
oil on canvas
Gift of the Estate of Sir John Douglas Hazen, 1959 (1959.56)


Marion Elizabeth Jack (Canadian, 1866 – 1954)
Apple Trees at Burton, New Brunswick, 1922-1930
oil on canvasboard
Gift of Catherine Coombes, 2008 (2008.27.1)

The New Brunswick Museum workshop series Natural Dyes with Denise Richard

On Sunday, 29 May from 1-5pm join the New Brunswick Museum for a one day Natural Dyes workshop with New Brunswick Artist, Denise Richard.

In this Natural Dye workshop, participants will explore a variety of dyes including plants, roots, wood and insect dyes. By the end of the workshop, they will have learned to record their methods, have a multitude of samples, and learn simple Shibori techniques to create a unique natural dye silk scarf. There will also be a short presentation by Peter Larocque, NBM Curator, looking at some fantastic pieces from the collection that use natural dye techniques.

The NBM spoke with Denise about herself and her art practice. Keep reading to learn more about her career and what participants can look forward to in the workshop!


Denise Richard has a Diploma in Art, Craft and Design from the Kootenay School of the Arts at Selkirk College in British Columbia. She is a multi-disciplinary craftsperson and designer, the focus of her studio work being the use of natural dyes and the exploration of felt in both sculptural and functional forms. She has shown her work in solo exhibitions and group shows in Canada and Europe. Denise has been an instructor since 2005 and is currently teaching in both the Foundation Visual Arts and Fibre Arts studios at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design (NBCCD).

NBM: Tell me a little bit about your practice. What materials do you use and where do you draw your inspiration from?
DR: My practice has evolved over the years, but I am definitely technique oriented. I continually learn techniques that inform my new work. For example I learned to felt and explored this medium as much as possible for a variety of products. I make everything from boiled wool rugs, furniture and garments, to Jim Hanson inspired puppets and felted mask for stage. What interests me is to defy design obsolescence. I want to design functional items, made from quality natural materials that will last a very long time. I dye most of my own fibres and textiles and create my own yardage for various projects. I work mainly with wool, silk, horse hair, linen and leather.

Fille de Mer, Denise Richard

NBM: If you weren’t an artist and a teacher, what do you think you would be doing?
If I weren’t a designer and teacher, I would be a puppeteer.

Headpieces, Denise Richard

NBM: We understand you have an interest in theatre and have done costume design for several productions. In what ways does theatre inform your artwork and vise versa?
DR: What attracts me to theatre is working collaboratively with the Artistic Director and creating a new world which convinces the audience that they are somehow a fly on the wall, witnessing someone else’s story. I love to watch my work come to life on stage and watch the audience react to the work.

Mouse King, Denise Richard

NBM: Do you have any hidden talents that not very many people would know about you?
DR: My hidden talent?  I am quite fearless when it comes to my work and I am not afraid to take risks.

Mask, Denise Richard

NBM: Are there any artists or craftspeople that you look to for inspiration (living or dead)?
DR: I admire a great many designers and artists but at the moment, the two that I look to for inspiration are Philippe Starck and Alexander McQueen. Alexander McQueen was above all an amazing craftsmen. I have yet to see anyone manipulate fabric like him. As for Starck, he is a bold designer who works in a variety of mediums and he is very innovative with materials.

Lamp by Phillipe Starck and gown by Alexander McQueen.

Photo credit:,

NBM: What can workshop participants look forward to learning on 29th May?
DR: In the Natural Dye workshop, students will explore a variety of dyes including plants, roots, wood and insect dyes. By the end of the day, they will have learned to fill in data sheets for recording their methods, they will have a multitude of samples and they will learn simple Shibori techniques to create a unique natural dye silk scarf.



The NBM hopes to see you at Denise’s workshop on Sunday, 29 May from 1-5pm!

The registration fee is $99 for NBM members and $110 for non-members.

Registration is required to hold the seat.

To register call 643 – 2349/1-888-268-9595.

Unlocking Mysteries at the New Brunswick Museum: An 18th-century United Empire Loyalist glass plate



Maker Unknown (Bohemian School) [possibly the Harrach Factory, Neuwelt, Czech Republic)
Plate, bowl or undertray, before 1789
blown, cut and engraved colourless glass
overall: 3 × 23.5 × 23.5 cm
Gift of Angela Huntjens and Dr. Johannes Huntjens, 2015 (2015.49)
New Brunswick Museum Collection

It is extremely rare for 18th century glass objects to have survived in New Brunswick. It is even more extraordinary for a table service piece, other than a drinking vessel, to have survived with its provenance intact.  A plate from the Colonel Richard Hewlett family donated to the New Brunswick Museum in December 2015 by Angela Huntjens and Dr. Johannes Huntjens is a major addition to the NBM’s collection of Loyalist-era glassware used in the province.

This plate, bowl or undertray is most likely of Bohemian origin. A commentary on this object provided by Ian Simmonds of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who specializes in the history and interpretation of early American glass, suggested that the piece may be attributable to the Harrach Factory in Neuwelt, Czech Republic. His review indicated that an existing pattern book from the factory shows similar approaches to shape, form and design.

The original owner, Colonel Richard Hewlett, fought in the American Revolutionary War as a Loyalist and settled his family in the Parish of Hampstead (present day Queenstown) after the conflict.  This piece remained in the Hewlett family until about 1906 when it was presented by two descendants as a wedding gift to the local Anglican rector and his wife.

The NBM currently houses half a dozen drinking glasses from the late 18th century and one decanter box containing glasses and bottles – all of which appear to have United Empire Loyalist provenance.  This tray certainly expands the representation of late 18th century luxury wares cherished by those immigrants who came to the province in the years after the American Revolutionary War.

This item also has potential for additional research relating to trading patterns between central Europe and North America in the 18th century.  It is also an excellent comparative example for understanding a variety of glass decorating processes and techniques.

Provenance: Colonel Richard Hewlett (1729-1789) and his wife, Mary Townsend (1734-1819); to their son, Joseph Hewlett (1772-1821) and his wife, Clarissa Winslow (1770-1861); to their son, Captain Thomas Townsend Hewlett (1793-1878) and his wife, Ann Horsfield Sloan (1795-1870); to their daughters, Mary E. Hewlett (1827-1916) and Eliza Winslow Hewlett (1834-1912) until about 1906; a wedding gift to Reverend Canon Mansel Shewen (1876-1951) and his wife , Edith Olivia Bishop; given to Ada Ruth Flemming Thompson (born 1906); to her daughter, Angela Thompson Huntjens and her husband, Dr. Johannes Huntjens.