Elephant Taxidermy ... The Akeley Method!
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Author Topic: Elephant Taxidermy ... The Akeley Method!  (Read 34841 times)
John Bellucci
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Location: Ohio
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« on: January 26, 2009, 09:38:04 PM »

Okay ... how about another historic "lesson"?  This time Elephant Taxidermy!  What I have will cover both African and Indian Elephants.  The accepted method of mounting pachyderms was perfected by Carl Ethan Akeley himself!  Working alone, and with the help of his wife at first, then other assistants, Akeley developed a direct modeling method for Elephants, that has only been surpassed with the advent of the solid foam mannikin or hollow paper mannikin.

As with all museum exhibits, it begins in the field with collecting the needed specimens.

Back at the museum, Akeley sculpted a miniature of his idea for his Elephant herd.  This would become the centerpiece of Akeley African Hall.

The tanned Elephant hide, which was split in half, is laid out in the outdoor yard of the museum and prepped, by moistening, stretching, and cleaning off.

Carl Akeley had the armature for his big Bull Elephant welded from steel pipe.  The trunk was wrapped with hardware cloth, as were the ears formed from the same material, to be covered with clay.  This same material was secured around the torso of the Elephant to give a solid support for the clay.  Mr. Akeley mounted four of the herd Elephants.

This was Robert Rockwell's armature for one of the three Elephants he was hired to mount to finish the herd.
As can be seen, he used lumber, even shaping the leg bones from wood to lessen the weight of what will be a very heavy mount indeed!  The skull is a plaster casting.

The clay is built onto the armature, but is not detailed in the same way other clay models are ...

... The reason is, the Elephant's tanned hide is applied to the clay armature, and the details are worked into the mount through the skin!  This is shown in greater detail later on in the Indian Elephant photo series.

Carl Akeley working on yet another member of the herd.  I have read that this particular Elephant's pose didn't fit the herd anywhere, so Mr. Akeley destroyed this model, and sculpted up another one.  This would become known as the "Rear Guard" of the herd.

Robert Rockwell's cow Elephant, finished after Carl Akeley's death, later came to be placed at the front of the herd.  That's Mr. Rockwell adjusting the right half of the hide at the top of the mount.

Mr. Akeley with one of his greatest ... if not his largest ... achievements!  His grand bull Elephant trumpeting "The Alarm" ... which is the name of the entire piece.

An article that appeared in one of the city papers of the day, heralding the completion -- at that time -- of "The Alarm".  

Another publicity photo of Akeley's herd.  The art department, "redesigned" the actual base the Elephants were standing on for the sake of print space.

Here is the Elephant herd on display ... and aren't those the luckiest young folks!  School children from surrounding area city schools were allowed to tour the museum, and get a "hands-on" experience with Akeley's Elephants!  Wow!

The mad worker that he was, Carl Akeley got his Elephant herd finished and up on display before construction of African Hall was even completed!  Now that's dedication!  Of course, the herd would later be expanded from four Elephants to seven!

A view of the completed herd from the second floor rotunda.  These beasts take up a lot of room!

The herd from ground level head on view ... "Charge!"

The herd from ground level side view.  The littlest calf mounted by Carl Akeley, is still there, now protected by the new surrounding members of the herd created by Robert Rockwell, with the cow Elephant he mounted now in front.

Another view of the herd, showing one of the rear herd members ... another Rockwell mount.

And a last view of the herd and African hall, again from above.

Now, a more complete photo treatise on the mounting of an Indian Elephant employing the methods developed and perfected by Carl Akeley, as performed by Mr. Louis Paul Jonas ... of Jonas Brothers Taxidermy fame!  Please note that there are two Indian Elephants in this exhibit -- a bull and a cow -- and the pictures go from one to the other, but the series of pictures themselves are in chronological order.

First is the start of the armature.  In this case, lumber was not only used, but the actual leg bones were employed by Mr. Jonas.  As always, a plaster casting of the skull was used to lighten the load!  This is the armature for the Bull Elephant.

Hardware cloth fitted over the framework, is reinforced with plaster.  It is carefully seamed so there is a left and right side!  Again, the Bull Elephant.

Mr. Jonas test fits the skin over the clay that has been modeled over the framework for the Cow Elephant.  Notice the clever use of segmented wooden pieces to build up the form of the trunk!

Back to the bull Elephant, Mr. Jonas models the clay to the proper dimensions.

Now to the neat part of this method.  The skin is fitted to the clay, and all details are worked into the surface of the skin.  The clay beneath the skin will allow for the details to be fixed in place.

Now the "Plasterers" are brought in and cover each side of the Bull Elephant with heavy layers of plaster.  This is applied directly to the mounted and detailed hide, and covers the inside of the legs, and half of the belly as well, but stops at the juncture of the head and neck.  The head will have it's own mold made.  This is a very different method from other taxidermic endeavors!

This is the Cow Elephant.  Being somewhat smaller than the Bull, the left half of her body is laid on its side in preparation to receive the plaster layers.

Louis Jonas assists the plastering team in covering his Cow Elephant with her plaster shell.  The first layer was always applied in a thin coat to capture all the detail, sinking into all skin wrinkles.  Reinforcing layers of plaster-dipped burlap were applied -- layer after layer -- building up a very thick and more importantly, heavy, final layer of plaster.

After the plaster has fully dried, set, and cured, the massive body-on-a-half-shell is turned over, and all clay and any original reinforcement is carefully, and thoroughly removed from the inside of the now dried Elephant hide.  This includes scraping down and up into the legs to remove all traces of clay from there as well.  You can get an idea of just how big these animals are ... there's a worker squatting inside the hollow mold!

As in the normal procedure of reinforcing a hollow mannikin, the interior of the Elephant's hide receives its fair share of wooden support ribbing and cross bracing.

With all supports in place, the mold halves containing the dried hide are stood upright, and secured together.  Notice the head mold ready to be removed from the dried and reinforced head skin within.  This is the Bull Elephant.

The two halves of the cow are handled a bit differently.  The plaster mother mold is removed prior to reassembling her body halves.  Here Louis Paul Jonas, on the right, discusses strategy with his team.  The assembled and plaster-free male Elephant can be seen standing to the far left of this photo.

Here the Cow Elephant is about to receive her completed head.  It took some heavy duty hoists to lift this noggin into place!

The head is being secured.  The exact method is unknown to me, suffice it to say, it must have been well done because no Elephant has ever lost its head at the museum!

Mr. Louis Paul Jonas is seen here touching up some small spots along the trunk of the female Elephant.  Just look at the detail!  Incredible!

Lastly, here is the female Indian Elephant in all her glory, on a temporary stand, waiting to be joined with her mate!

I just came across this interesting photo.  American servicemen visiting with the Indian Elephants in 1944.  That's the Bull Elephant that they're admiring ... and the back end of the female.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this look into Taxidermy of the past.  These mounts are still standing, and at my last visit are still looking good!

« Last Edit: February 02, 2011, 12:46:19 AM by John Bellucci » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: January 26, 2009, 09:49:57 PM »

That's unbelievable! Now that is a l/s project. Thanks for sharing that.

George Roof
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« Reply #2 on: January 26, 2009, 09:56:06 PM »

John, the heads were mounted much like airplane engines of that day or jet engines are today on airplane wings.  See the worker reaching down through the "pylon" access.  He's bolting the braces together (on in the body and one on the back of the head.  Pretty ingenious.

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Adam Wright
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Location: Adams, Massachusetts
Posts: 918

« Reply #3 on: January 26, 2009, 10:15:50 PM »

thats awesome, ive enjoyed your recent posts. Ive been wondering about taxidermy in the "old days" (or should i say, the beginning?)
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Location: TN
Posts: 546

« Reply #4 on: January 26, 2009, 10:19:06 PM »

John, I love reading these history of taxidermy post. Thanks alot and keep them comming!!

"Life goes by pretty fast. If you don't stop & look around & do whatever you want all the time, you could miss it."--Cartman
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« Reply #5 on: January 26, 2009, 10:25:00 PM »

Thank you John
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« Reply #6 on: January 26, 2009, 10:40:57 PM »


Ross Vogler
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« Reply #7 on: January 26, 2009, 10:44:52 PM »

Thank you for that history lesson. Very interesting.

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Location: Glasgow, Missouri
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« Reply #8 on: January 26, 2009, 11:22:54 PM »

Very cool, I hope to see more of your posts on the old days.

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Bob Coughlin
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Posts: 205

« Reply #9 on: January 27, 2009, 07:21:48 AM »

I've always concidered that indian elephant the finist piece of taxidermy ever done.  The other piece that might rival it is the racehorse Phar Lap, also done by Louis Paul Jonas, perhaps the best Taxidermist that has ever lived.
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Location: Boomer NC
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« Reply #10 on: January 27, 2009, 02:29:00 PM »

Great post keep them comming.

Let All Go Hunting!!!!
Peter Span
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« Reply #11 on: January 27, 2009, 04:18:33 PM »

Verrrrry cool indeed!!!

Corvids rule!
Daniel M.
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Location: Ohio
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« Reply #12 on: January 27, 2009, 04:42:39 PM »

Wow, thanks for sharing!
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« Reply #13 on: January 27, 2009, 04:55:35 PM »

Thanks for sharing some really cool history. It shows how difficult a task taxidermy used to be. Think of the time it would take to do work like that today.

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« Reply #14 on: January 27, 2009, 05:43:18 PM »

great post

i wana hunt
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