For any of you who wondered at the strangeness of a dramatic, one-day exhibit of a life-sized whale made from plastic at the University of Montana last October, here’s the rest of the story.

The “Plastic Whale Project” came to Missoula courtesy of the cable television show “Shipping Wars.”

There was just one unusual caveat.

The free exhibit was made possible because of the show, but the reason for and peculiar nature of the shortened display time had to be kept secret, said Barbara Koostra, director of the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at UM.

Until now.

This Saturday, A&E Television Network will air an episode that shows the challenges of shipping the 32-foot-long gray whale from Thurston, County, Wash., to Missoula – where it made a huge splash on the Dennison Theatre stage.

The television program paid for all expenses related to the exhibit, so no one would fully understand why camera crews were hovering nearby.

“The show is about professional shippers who compete with each other for bids to carry unusual and challenging items,” Koostra said. “And this 32-foot-long whale was certainly in that category.

“The crews filmed the whole process, which originated in Washington, and they always create a feeling of pressure that a deadline must be met.”

Koostra said the experience was fun, maybe a little strange, but in the end more than 700 people were able to see a gorgeous, educational artwork.

“The whale was a great fit for our museum,” Koostra said. “It was a great opportunity to share a message of taking care of the natural world, which I think is foremost in the minds of Montanans.”

The "Plastic Whale Project” was created in 2012 to educate people about the effects of plastic waste on the environment, and was spearheaded by Carrie Ziegler, an artist who also works for Thurston County Solid Waste.

Using more than 9,000 plastic bags, Ziegler and 900 children and adults in Washington created the giant whale.

With the unusual sculpting material, the whale’s skin shows a map of the Pacific Ocean and the currents that carry the world’s ocean trash to a giant garbage patch called the Great Pacific Gyre.

This “garbage soup” is about as big as the state of Texas, Ziegler explained at the time of the UM exhibit, and the top 30 meters of ocean is filled with plastics that don’t biodegrade.

“That the artist was along for the exhibit was a terrific addition,” Koostra said. “It was a wonderful way for visitors to learn even more about the message of the whale.”

That UM and Missoula are featured on the national show is pretty thrilling, Koostra said.

“It was a triple-win situation for us,” she said. “The whale project was fun as an art piece that fit our mission as a museum; it was an exciting way for Missoula to have some national play and for UM to be the stage – literally the stage – for the setting of the episode.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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