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Long Live The Elephants, Long Dead; Museum Works to Save A Taxidermy Masterpiece

Discussion in 'Taxidermy History' started by LordRusty, Apr 19, 2009.

  1. LordRusty

    LordRusty If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

    Long Live The Elephants, Long Dead; Museum Works to Save A Taxidermy Masterpiece

    From The New York Times, 2004
    Published: Friday, June 4, 2004

    The herd of eight elephants was parading majestically across the hard-pan plain, moving toward food and water. But the giant bull to the south suddenly tensed, sensing danger. And the alert rear-guard bull swiveled about, tusks at the ready.

    It was no surprise, though, that all of them were oblivious yesterday to Tory Ferraro, a specialist who was busily positioning a portable 12-pound X-ray generator that could ensure their future survival.

    The famous East African elephant herd (of Loxodonta africana, that is to say) is, of course, the centerpiece of the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History.

    For the first time these specimens are undergoing high-definition digital radiography in a $175,000 study that, with luck, will answer this crucial question: How can this 68-year-old exhibition best be saved?

    ''To generations of visitors, these elephants have conveyed the power and scale of the natural world in a very visceral way,'' said Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum. ''It is essential to preserve this signature hall for future generations.''

    Peering past the darkness that showcases the 28 brilliantly lighted dioramas in the hall, visitors can see dust on the elephant skins and cracking at some of the ears. While the elephants and other specimens in the exhibits have had strategic repairs through the years, there has never been a major restoration, said Stephen C. Quinn, a senior project manager at the museum.

    But museum officials are more concerned by what they cannot see. So the X-ray imaging is part of a year-and-a-half research study that will be completed by the end of the month. This will be followed by a multimillion-dollar restoration of the hall, expected to last three to five years.

    This is entirely appropriate, said Dr. Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Grant Program, the philanthropic division of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which financed the study. The exhibitions, she said, ''are works of art.''

    The African hall, branching off the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, is named for Carl E. Akeley, an Indiana Jones-ish naturalist, taxidermist and sculptor. He conceived the exhibitions and prepared many of the specimens, including four of the elephants, which he completed between 1915 and 1919.

    After his death at the age of 62 in 1926, the other specimens were prepared through 1936, when the hall opened and created a sensation.

    Akeley gave the elephant group a name: ''The Alarm.'' The great bull is depicted in an early stage of alert, before trumpeting, and stands 10 feet 6 inches at the shoulder. Akeley dubbed another bull ''The Rear Guard,'' and it is thought by some to be his finest taxidermic creation. Mr. Quinn said that four of the elephants in the herd came from a 1909 safari, and that Teddy Roosevelt himself shot the elephant cow on the north side of the group.

    Since Wednesday, X-ray technology has been used to assess the condition of the mounts' internal wood and iron supports. Yesterday, Mr. Ferraro, a senior preparator in the museum's exhibition department, positioned the X-ray generator by raising a bright red scissor lift aloft at the ear of a big bull elephant, and William J. Hornof, a veterinarian, managed the complex gear of the imaging consultants, Eklin Medical Systems and Canon U.S.A.

    After making sure that everyone was out of harm's way, he fired off a burst of X-rays through the elephant into the detector panel. In less than a minute, the team was clustered around a flat-panel image of the interior of the elephant.

    Though the public has been kept at a safe distance, this scientific scrum has been in plain sight of museum visitors. ''I think it's a wonder that the elephants have lasted this long,'' said Lori Kahn, a Manhattan television executive who looked on with her 6-year-old son, Adam Malkin, and his friend, Matt Glickman, also 6.

    ''Are they really dead?'' Adam asked excitedly.

    ''Yes,'' his mother said.

    ''How did they get dead?'' he asked.

    Exotic imaging procedures are necessary because few records of the specimens' original preparation survive at the museum. Radiography can reveal, for example, whether some of the visible vertical cracks in the elephants' ears are simply surface tears caused by gravity, or indications of graver structural problems in the interior armatures.

    In addition, as part of the study, the team has opened 13 of the hall's 28 dioramas by gingerly removing their 300-pound, 13.8-foot by 8-foot glass windows. These investigations have already been cause for concern.

    ''Some of the skins and plant materials are dessicated due to the hot lights and low humidity,'' said Judith Levinson, head conservator in the division of anthropology. And, she said, ''everything is covered with a fine layer of dust.''

    The elephant skins have also become dust catchers through the decades. They will be gently vacuumed and cleaned with dry, dirt-trapping conservation sponges.

    Eventually, conservators plan to install compact fluorescents and metal-halide lamps in the dioramas' recessed lighting galleries, since they give off the same amount of light as the older fluorescent and tungsten lamps but are much cooler in operation. They also hope to add filters in the ventilation system.

    Already the close investigation of the exhibits has further burnished the reputation of Akeley, Mr. Quinn said.

    Akeley was a persuasive naturalist who worked tirelessly to influence the Belgian government to found the Parc Nationale Albert in 1925 in what was then the Belgian Congo; it spans 200 square miles of high mountain rain forest that today is the last stronghold of the mountain gorilla, the preserve where Dian Fossey conducted her research.

    Akeley was once mauled by a charging bull elephant, which tore open the side of his face and broke his ribs. During his long convalescence, he began envisioning the hall that became his dream: an exhibition that would capture the dominant forms of mammalian life in Africa in the context of their scenery and environment. He worked on it for 17 years.

    But it was as a taxidermist that Akeley made his greatest mark, Mr. Quinn said, helping to revolutionize the presentation of animals in artistic and natural displays, instead of simply stuffing them, the practice at the time.

    Akeley and his assistants made stereoscopic camera studies of specimens in the wild, and took measurements with sculptors' calipers. He directed assistants to make death masks of animals so their features could be exactly duplicated. Then Akeley sculptured clay models of each animal to be mounted, and subsequently created light, hollow papier-mache' molds of the specimens.

    Each skin, representing an immense investment of labor in the field, was treated like a treasure when it arrived at the museum. The tanned skins were artfully arranged on the papier-mache' molds to show wrinkles and folds in lifelike poses. Later elephants' original tusks were added to the mount, as were eyes of German glass.

    During his last expedition, suffering from dysentery and malaria, Akeley ''finally walked into the shadows of the forests of the Kivu and left his mortal remains in the very land he had longed for,'' as Henry Fairfield Osborn, then the museum's president, put it. In the hall he conceived, the mountain-gorilla diorama has a panoramic backdrop depicting, at the right, Mount Mikeno, Akeley's final resting place, in the wildlife sanctuary he helped to create, under a slab that bears simply his name and final day, Nov. 17, 1926.

    And the hall, completed 10 years after his death, still bears a memorial plaque celebrating ''the unstinted giving of his energies, even to life itself.''

    Lucky school children having a personal visit with Akeley's herd back in the 50's.
  2. BVanKirk

    BVanKirk package deal

    thanks for sharing that :)

  3. psycho

    psycho 2011 WORLD CHAMPIONS!

    Just Awesome. Thanks for posting that one. Dan
  4. once again' great reading
  5. very cool thanks for the read. hope they can save it ;D
  6. michael p.

    michael p. Getting better with age :)

    I saved an elephant one night in college. She was really drunk on bourbon, so I took her home with me, kept her safe overnight & then the next morning fed her peanuts & released her back into the wild :)
  7. Bill Yox

    Bill Yox Well-Known Member

    Re: Long Live The Elephants, Long Dead; Museum Works to Save A Taxidermy Masterp

    To my knowledge most of this restoration has already occurred. George Dante from NJ, as well as John Janelli, could easily update everyone on this. I believe George was there. I saw photos of the restoration in one of my books, from Stephen Quinn. The techs doing the work wore those white contamination suits and respirators, due to the threat of harmful chemicals used in that era. How cool!
  8. BVanKirk

    BVanKirk package deal

  9. Crittercoroner

    Crittercoroner DUDE, your uselessness is epic!

    Was just there last Thursday, unfortunately, with way too many kids to keep track of to actually take time to look at everything there is to see. However, I did manage to score a great book on the diaramas, by Stephen Quinn, Windows On Nature. It goes into some of the details on how each of the diaramas were made including info about the taxidermists, painters, and people who collected the critters. It also show's the making of one of the elephants along with the xraying of some of the mounts. Cool book to be sure, and it even has a pic of one of NJ's own, David Scwendeman.

    On a side note, I was telling a teacher friend who was with us that all the plant material in all the displays was hand made, well, she just looked a little incredulous. Showing her the book and the included pics when I found them opened her eyes a little.

    Wild elephants in college??? Maybe a wayward hefford. Was this during your drinking days???
  10. Bill Yox

    Bill Yox Well-Known Member

    Re: Long Live The Elephants, Long Dead; Museum Works to Save A Taxidermy Masterp

    Dave when were you there? A class trip with the kids eh? Lol. Hey sorry I missed your call the other night.
  11. Crittercoroner

    Crittercoroner DUDE, your uselessness is epic!

    Re: Long Live The Elephants, Long Dead; Museum Works to Save A Taxidermy Masterp

    This past Thursday bro. Just a group of families that have been hanging together since our kids were pre K or so. No prob on the phone, eventually I'll be your #1 taxinet bud again.
  12. Joe Winsor

    Joe Winsor Active Member

    Thanks for posting that Rusty! I hope to see that first hand, soon!