The Bolivar facility

Working with the skeleton of an animal that is almost 20m long isn't easy. The Museum is home to a purpose-built facility for large skeleton preparation, which is one of the best equipped facilities for this work in the world. The Bolivar facility has helped the Museum develop the largest and most comprehensive whale and dolphin collection in Australia.

The facility is located at SA Water’s sewage treatment plant at Bolivar, 20km north of Adelaide. It houses all the specialised equipment needed to handle skeletons of all sizes, including large whales. Up to 40 marine mammals and many other vertebrate skeletons are processed for the Museum each year. Contract skeleton preparation work is also undertaken for other institutions and private organisations.

The large workspace includes a five tonne overhead gantry crane for moving specimens as well as six, stainless steel heated macerating vats with a steel basket partitioning system to keep individual skeletons separated during the maceration process. Outside there is a 35,000 litre concrete tank big enough to hold skeletons of large whales. There are also two large stainless steel dissection tables, an industrial steam cleaner, walk-in cold room and a freezer shipping container. The facility was originally fitted with a custom-built liquid-vapour degreaser. trichloroethylene was used to degrease skeletons up to 1999 when, due to health and safety concerns, the Museum stopped using this processing technique.

The facility is used by taxidermists, veterinarians, zoos, other museums, fauna parks, the horse racing, game fishing and film industries, government departments, providers of scientific resources and the biology departments of universities, colleges and schools.  

In 1996 a large building was added to the facility to accommodate the Museum’s collection of whale and dolphin skulls, skeletons and baleen. Visitors are astounded by the sheer size of the whale bones and huge number of specimens housed at the facility.

Contract services offered

The South Australian Museum offers a range of services at its skeleton preparation facility including flensing of animal carcasses (mammals, reptiles, birds and fish) and macerating (soaking in water for long periods) and cleaning of skeletons.

Scientific study of large vertebrates can be conducted on request, including measurements, photographs, dissections and removal of some internal organs.

Depending on the type and amount of material to be prepared, contracts can be completed in two to six months. Very large or difficult specimens may take longer.

Note: The facility is not licensed to prepare human skeletons.


Facility charges

Charges are based on the size of the specimen and the type and amount of preparation requested. Units of approximately 40kg or 60x40cm are used to estimate size and costs.

For further information on the South Australian Museum’s skeleton preparation Facility or to obtain a quote please contact the Collection Manager, Mammals, David Stemmer.


Early days

The Museum has been preparing skeletons of large specimens since the 1880s. The first large skeleton that was collected and prepared by the Museum was a 17m sperm whale which is still on display today. In the early days, the work was done in the basement of the main Museum building and in another building on the site known as the ‘maceration house’ or ‘whale shed’ which also housed the whale and dolphin collection.

In the 1970s after this building was demolished to make way for the State Library building, the Museum acquired an old farm house next to the sewage treatment works at Bolivar, north of Adelaide. Makeshift vats were made out of wooden slats and plastic sheeting, plastic bins and buckets. After using this site for almost 10 years, the State government allocated funding for the current purpose-built Facility which was designed in consultation with the Museum’s preparators and curators.

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