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Science in Museums: Carl Akeley, Museum Innovator

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on October 23, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Kacie Rice

Carl Akeley, museum hero and innovator, posing with a leopard he took down bare-handed. Photo from the American Museum of Natural History.

Carl Akeley, museum hero and innovator, posing with a leopard he took down bare-handed. Photo from the American Museum of Natural History.

“Why museums?” It’s a question that haunts the museum world – whether it’s, “Why do you work in a museum?”, “Why should we bring our students on a museum field trip?”, “Why do we need museums?”, or the big one, “Why should my organization give money to your museum?”, we answer this question all the time. We answer that we’re advocates of free choice learning, that we preserve and protect our collective heritage, that we create valuable community gathering spaces, and for some of us, that we really do just like hanging out in smelly rooms full of animal skins. For the last century and a half, museums have been any and all of these things to our society and to the people who work in them, but they’ve also provided a service that many people don’t expect: innovation.

Museum detractors often describe museums as static, old-fashioned, and boring. For some, museums are stuck in the world of dusty dioramas, really bad taxidermies, dry art history lectures, and roped-off rooms full of dining chairs. And yes, this was pretty accurate for the first half-century or so of the modern museum’s life (we’re talking late-19th century, way before the populist movements of the 1920’s and the “new museum” of the 1990’s). And it was in trying to break out of these stereotypes that museum professionals created lasting innovations in any number of fields – after all, one of the big answers to “Why museums?” is that museum workers get to wear a huge number of hats in any given day. We’re artists, educators, model builders, graphic designers, scientists, volunteer managers, and businesspeople. The challenge and joy of working in a museum is that you get to be an expert in a huge range of fields, all while hanging out with dinosaurs.

One of the undisputed greatest pioneers in museum technique is famed taxidermist Carl Akeley (1864-1926). Akeley was one of the guys who really started to give museums a good name in the early 20th century – and in the process, created technologies that are used in fields from construction to film to environmental science. He was a taxidermy enthusiast who began his career in 1883 at Ward’s Natural Science (yes, that Ward’s Natural Science, the same company that shipped your high school science teacher pickled frogs in jars. Ward’s is another great example of a company that originated as a museum supplier and moved into another field: formal education supplies.). At the time, founder Henry Ward ran a taxidermy office and scientific collections repository, providing specimens to museums and universities around the country for research and display. Akeley, not one for modesty, quickly realized that the Ward’s taxidermists really had no idea what they were doing, and he set about to perfect and standardize their taxidermy work.

(No, really, they had no idea what they were doing.)

(No, really, they had no idea what they were doing.)

Akeley set about to improve animal display techniques, which until that time had involved stuffing the preserved skin with straw, adding some glass eyes, and calling it a day. His new procedure involved sculpting a detailed model of the animal in clay and concrete, taking into account musculature, realistic poses, and even behavior – he was very careful to put animals in plausible situations and settings. His sculpture technique is now the gold standard for taxidermists around the world (even backyard taxidermists like my dad, whom I grew up watching carve Styrofoam torsos to create life mounts for duck skins).

Akeley’s improved technique on display in his 1920 “African Elephant Group” mount at the American Museum of Natural History

Akeley’s improved technique on display in his 1920 “African Elephant Group” mount at the American Museum of Natural History

Creating mounts in Akeley’s style for AMNH’s “African Lions,” 1934

Creating mounts in Akeley’s style for AMNH’s “African Lions,” 1934

But it wasn’t all animal skins and diorama boxes for Akeley. In his pursuit for a better animal mount, he acquired over 30 different wide-ranging patents. One of the most economically important of these is today called “shotcrete.” Invented by Akeley to speed up his sculpting process, shotcrete is a form of concrete that is extruded from a high-powered pneumatic hose – it essentially acts like a concrete Super Soaker. Shotcrete is regularly used today in construction projects around the world to create fast, even coatings of concrete. In an effort to more faithfully reproduce the scenes he saw on his many collecting trips to Africa, Akeley also invented a portable video camera that was later used to film the World War I battlefronts.

His love for the African continent and the big mammals he found there began his enthusiasm for environmentalism, and he became a staunch advocate for mountain gorilla conservation (his penchant for shooting and collecting animals doesn’t jive with our modern view of conservation, but in Akeley’s day, this practice was considered a way to raise awareness of endangered species by educating the public about them – and an ethically permissable way to preserve specimens in case they really did go extinct). His love for these animals led him to petition the Belgian government for a gorilla sanctuary in the Congo.

Museum professionals are still innovating today, from Philip Yenawine’s creation of the Visual Thinking Strategies teaching device, to new techniques for preservation and conservation. The interdisciplinary nature of our work often allows us to be at the forefront of new technologies and theories – and even to invent some. So the next time someone asks “Why museums?”, we can point at museum legends like Carl Akeley as ambassadors of our exciting and innovative work.

P.S. My fellow Tufts Jumbos may be interested to know that Akeley created the original Jumbo the Elephant mount for P.T. Barnum after the elephant’s death in 1885. His mount lived in Barnum Hall on the Tufts campus in Medford until it fell victim to a tragic fire in 1973.

For more on Carl Akeley, check out the following:

Badass of the Week: Carl Akeley (credit for bad taxidermy and lion mount photos)

The Field Museum: Carl Akeley

Jay Kirk’s in depth study of Akeley’s life and legacy, Kingdom Under Glass

Stephen Christopher Quinn’s Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History

Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An  Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History

 

2 Comments

  • Cynthia Robinson says:

    Very interesting, Kacie. From your story, I can see too how Akeley’s work demonstrates how museums trade, share, and spread good ideas and techniques, way before the days of social media. I love the American Museum of Natural History’s beautiful dioramas which he must have worked on, and a more recent installation, the Hall of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. My favorite there is the pangolin; armored, curled, and hanging by its tail.

  • Kacie Rice says:

    Thanks, Cynthia! That’s a great point – museums were idea repositories long before we had social media. There’s a painting at MFA showing a room full of paintings that looks like a 18th century version of Instagram or Tumblr.

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