WEST HARTFORD — As the Children’s Museum gears up to relocate to Hartford next spring, officials are wrangling with a costly dilemma: Can the iconic Conny the Whale make the move?
Museum officials had planned to relocate the 60-foot sperm whale that was built by volunteers on the property 45 years ago, but they are now weighing the estimated $165,000 to $200,000 it will cost to move the animal.
Michael Werle, the museum’s executive director, said the facility is considering three sites in Hartford for its move and hopes to make a decision by the end of the month. Kingswood Oxford School, which owns and is in the process of selling the 3.4 acres of land it occupies on Trout Brook Drive, has requested that the museum move off the property by April 1.
No matter which site they pick, Werle said, the move is going to include some kind of renovation or new construction, and they envision it being a net-zero energy facility.
What museum officials are struggling with, he said, is figuring out if that money is best spent on moving Conny or using it elsewhere.
“That’s exactly the conundrum,” Werle said. “There’s no better way to say it. The money that could go into moving the whale, we would prefer to put into the building and programs.”
Conny’s history goes well beyond the museum, which has incorporated it into its logo and branding. The statue was built by a group of 100 volunteers of the then-named Connecticut Cetacean Society as a symbol against the slaughter of sperm whales, which is also the Connecticut state animal.
A movement that started locally went national and the group is now named the Cetacean Society International. Its president, David Kaplan, still lives in West Hartford.
“The key about this is that Conny was built for a purpose,” Kaplan said. “It wasn’t built as a playscape. It was a symbol to stop killing whales. We view Conny not just as part of West Hartford and the museum, but as an asset to the state.”
Kaplan said the mammals are still threatened by plastics and pollution, giving Conny a whole new meaning today.
“The thing now killing sperm whales are mainly plastics,” Kaplan said. “Symbolically ... why it was built and why we want to keep Conny hasn’t changed. The battle for saving whales has not ended. We want the understanding and the acceptance to come back that Conny is a living purpose in a statue form that’s something that’s as real today as it was then.”
Don Sineti, a Bloomfield resident who co-founded Connecticut Cetacean Society with Robbins Barstow of Wethersfield, was among the volunteers who built Conny. In 2016, he participated in a 40th birthday party for the beloved icon.
He said he would be disappointed if Conny wasn’t moved to the museum’s new location.
“People came from all over, from great distances, to take part in that process,” said Sineti, who’s also known for his sea chanteyman performances at the Mystic Seaport Museum. “It was really quite an effort. It certainly is quite effective.”
For the Cetacean Society International, Conny is a symbol of everything they work toward. For the children attending preschool at the museum, Conny is a celebrity they anticipate seeing every day. For many others, their museum is simply “the one with the whale.”
Werle’s question, he said, is who owns Conny? They didn’t build it and they don’t own the land it’s on, Werle said.
“We’ve got sort of mixed emotions,” Werle said. “The whale is parked here and has become part of our persona. It really is not in it of itself ours. It’s here as a symbol and was created by a third party on behalf of the state and the worldwide whale community. Can we move something that doesn’t belong to us? Do we have the right to pick it up and walk away with it? We’re caught in a little bit of a conundrum trying to decide who has parental responsibility here.”
In a perfect world, Werle imagines a rigging company strapping Conny to the back of a flatbed and holding a celebratory parade to the museum’s next location in Hartford.
He also said they can’t imagine abandoning Conny.
“This thing has significant history and is viewed by some as an important icon, not just for the museum, but for people who worry about saving the whales worldwide,” Werle said. “Suppose we just got up and walked away, what would happen? Could we abandon Conny? We think that’s not appropriate. We have some responsibility. But we think it’s a shared responsibility.”
Kaplan said it would be a “devastation” to the Cetacean Society International if Conny isn’t saved.
“We should be enhancing and explaining and sharing the purpose of Conny,” Kaplan said. “Without Conny, we can’t do that. There’s no other symbol we have regionally that represents the movement to help whales. If we lose Conny, the entire opportunity is gone. The original purpose hasn’t lost us. Something good has to come of this.”
Kaplan views Conny’s 1976 construction as a rare feat, something he doesn’t think could be replicated today.
“In the 70s when this was taking off, activism had a very different flavor and feeling than it does today,” Kaplan said. “[Today] you can be an activist and never leave your computer. But taking to the streets ... and putting time in was a different thing. We have a list of 100 names who volunteered to be out there working on a whale. I can’t imagine getting 100 people to do anything today. Can you imagine a museum anywhere in the world today letting a bunch of amateurs build Conny?”
And that’s why Kaplan said if Conny doesn’t survive the Children’s Museum’s move, he doesn’t think you’ll ever see anything like it again.
“If they can’t put the dollars together to move it ... it’ll never come back,” Kaplan said. “If Conny were lost, you’d be amazed the people that would come to the funeral.”