Writing about the world of whales

Hope, the 25-metre-long blue whale skeleton, has transformed the Natural History Museum’s dazzling entrance hall. Last week I joined crowds of people gazing up at the blue-washed beast – the largest species that has ever lived – and considered the fact that before conservation efforts, our species nearly wiped it out.


But I was really here to see Whales: beneath the surface, an accompanying exhibition that showcases the Natural History Museum’s collection of whale and dolphin specimens, and tells the remarkable story of how cetaceans evolved from land mammals.


Beneath the surface is the second recent Natural History Museum exhibition for which I’ve written the text. The first was Treasures of the Natural World, a collection of the Museum’s historical highlights that still enable scientists to make breakthroughs today. It began its world tour in Japan and is now heading for Singapore’s ArtScience Museum.

For Whales, I worked from the well-developed content documents and hierarchy, alongside design plans, to create fact-rich and compelling text. My brief included writing to amaze and intrigue visitors, explaining complex ideas, encouraging action but not anthropomorphising the creatures. I really loved the vivid illustration work the Museum had commissioned from artist Sarah Maycock.


To check I was on the right lines, I supplied the exhibition team with initial sample text written from two perspectives. The first aimed to give adult readers good stories to read and share in the family groups that the Museum was targeting. The second was for the children to read themselves, with a more playful style (but never, ever, any exclamation marks).

In the world of whales (style 1)

Cold. Dark. Deep. The oceans are a tough place to survive.

Yet wherever there are waterways, there are whales and dolphins. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, a huge range of species swim at the surface or down in the depths.

Like us, they are mammals. Baby whales are born underwater and drink milk as their first food.

But their life story is a mystery 40 million years in the making. How and why did whales evolve, all those years ago? What makes today’s species so perfectly suited to their place in the seas?

Science is starting to dip deeper into the world of whales and dolphins. Dive in and find out more.


Whales’ world (style 2)

Dark and deep, colossal and cold.

What would it be like to live in an ocean?

You’d need a body shaped for swimming and deft at diving.

You’d have to like eating fish – and catching them.

You’d need to be able to hold your breath for at least as long as this sentence takes to read, if not much, much, much, much, much longer.

At least you’d never need a bath.

Whales and dolphins are mammals like us, with warm blood and live babies. Yet they thrive in all the world’s seas.

Dive into our exhibition to find out how and why.

When there’s time to produce sample text during a project, I find it always helps iron out queries. How should we refer to the creatures – cetaceans, or whales and dolphins? What about porpoises? Does my definition of playful go too far, or not far enough? I like to make sure I’m asking questions I think visitors will really want to know about – and that I have the information I need to answer them. From the selected sample text (style 1) I could then build the whole script.


This process also gives a valuable way to experiment with new ways of writing – since there isn’t any single, defined style for museum text. On the TextWorkshop writing courses I run with Dea Birkett, we encourage delegates to explore picture books, websites, advertising copy, magazines, speeches and all kinds of other sources for inspiration.

50 million years ago, a goat-sized creature splashed through the shallow waters at the edge of a lake, looking for fish to eat. Four-legged Pakicetus is the ancestor of all the cetaceans we know today, with their diverse sizes, intriguing lifestyles, and intelligence. The story of how it happened is laid out in Whales: beneath the surface. I hope visitors find it as inspiring as I have.

Whales – Beneath The Surface from John Ingle on Vimeo.