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Behind the scenes: making life size penguins

Penguins in progress at Amalgam


A family of six penguins has taken up residence at Brunel’s SS Great Britain this October half term. They’re not real, but they are terrifically life-like. Interpretation Manager Simon Strain gives a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the penguins and explains the reason for their arrival…

After nearly ten years of working at Brunel's SS Great Britain, I’ve learned that the cliché is true: no two days are ever the same. I’ve done it all, from scaling the rigging dressed as Brunel to firing marshmallows out of a vacuum cleaner. However, even I took pause when I was asked to bring a “waddle” of penguins to the Great Western Dockyard as part of our 50th Anniversary celebrations!

Why penguins, you ask? Before her triumphant return home to Bristol in 1970, SS Great Britain lay discarded on the banks of Sparrow Cove in the Falkland Islands for 33 years. Whilst Brunel’s historic ship was largely forgotten by the outside world during this time, the island’s inhabitants made sure she was never truly abandoned. 
The SS Great Britain in the Falkland Islands, 1970. 2011.0004
Falkland Islanders, who sheltered her in Port Stanley for decades, have a strong affection for the ship. Many an Islander would row out to the wreck to scavenge mussels, but it was the cove’s other inhabitants who really kept the ship company during her wilderness years: Penguins. SS Great Britain shared Sparrow Cove with a large rookery of Gentoo penguins. What they made of their famous neighbour we’ll never know, but for over three decades they swam, fished and reared their young alongside Brunel’s great iron ship.
Penguins in the Falkland Islands in 1970. 2001.0.16.023
So, when the time came to find a fun and quirky way of introducing families to the story of the SS Great Britain’s homecoming, penguins were the perfect choice. But how do you bring penguins to the dockyard? The answer is: you need help. 
We’re partnering with the Falklands Island Government and Falkland Islands Association on an outdoor photography exhibition and an anniversary penguin trail, each part of the 50th anniversary celebrations. Falkland Islands businesses have kindly sponsored the creation of six life-size penguin models, which include all five species found on the Islands.
However, with the funding in place the question remained, how does one procure a single penguin, let alone six? Fortunately, I didn’t need to go far for the answer. 
Amalgam is a Bristol company which specialise in model-making of all shapes and sizes, from film props to replica yachts. Equipped with expert penguin knowledge from our Falkland Island partners, Amalgam were perfectly suited to take on the challenge. Watching six penguins take form beneath the skilled hands of Amalgam’s master model makers has been remarkable. The degree of realism and character they’ve created for each penguin is fantastic, and the attention to detail, especially to the textures and colours of the models, really is impressive. 
With the penguins now living here in Bristol, the family trail is ready to launch for October half term. Local illustrator Sally Barnett has created colourful penguins for the trail guide, 'Stanley’s Great Adventure'. This family trail introduces visitors to Stanley the penguin and his friends who’ve made the epic journey from the Falklands to Bristol to see SS Great Britain. Using the illustrations as clues, families retrace the penguins’ steps through the dockyard to help them find their missing eggs. Along the way, visitors encounter seven special objects relating to the ship’s rescue and discover more about the incredible story of the ship's journey back to Bristol.
It’s projects like this that remind me how lucky I am to work in a museum. Where else could you collaborate so creatively with both master craftspeople on your doorstep and passionate volunteers out in the middle of the South Atlantic! I’ve learned more about penguins than I ever imagined, and best of all I’ve played a small role in sharing the extraordinary story of the ship’s homecoming with the next generation of budding Brunels. It really is true - there’s never a dull moment working at Brunel's SS Great Britain! 
Author: Simon Strain, Active Interpretation Manager