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Keys to the kingdom: The story of a revolutionary taxidermist

Author Jay Kirk talks about his biography of Carl Akeley.

Carl Akeley with the leopard that nearly killed him. Photo: Courtesy Henry Holt and Co.

In an age when every species on the planet is a mere Google search away, it is hard to imagine a time when the only way for large numbers of people to know what a gorilla truly looked like was for someone to kill one, bring it home and stuff it. But a hundred years ago, as the so-called Gilded Age was coming to a close, great men of means were filling their trophy halls with beasts of the jungle and the veld. African species had been decimated by hunting, and photography was not yet an effective tool for documenting animals in the wild. For someone whose interest in animals extended beyond the mere adventure of the kill, “collecting” lions and leopards for the education of posterity seemed a last hope.

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  • Excerpt: ‘Kingdom Under Glass’
    "Kingdom Under Glass" is the epic tale of Carl Akeley, the taxidermist-artist who created the famed dioramas in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Carl Akeley was such a man. Best known for the Hall of African Mammals that bears his name at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Akeley revolutionized the field of taxidermy by developing a method of reconstructing the animal from the inside out. An intrepid explorer who was nearly killed more than once on the hunt and who traveled with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Akeley also became one of history’s great advocates for conservation. In a new book, “Kingdom Under Glass,” Jay Kirk tells the story of this complicated man, an adventurer who embodied the contradictions of his age.

Read an excerpt of “Kingdom Under Glass.”

Catherine Quayle: Carl Akeley had many talents, it seems: sculpting, taxidermy, exploring, inventing, photography and ladies’ hats. But what does his work mean to us today?

Jay Kirk: I think, aside from the inherent, possibly guilty pleasure of visiting the dioramas at the natural history museums, the value of his work today is as a historical lesson in how our attitudes shift over time. Of course, those attitudes shift in part due to advances in technology. So, whereas photography was inadequate to really capture the vividness of wildlife, taxidermy and dioramas were the way to go a hundred years ago. Fortunately, with some help from Akeley, who reinvented the motion picture camera, we now have ways to let us get closer to see wildlife without having to kill it first.

Quayle: Akeley is credited with inventing the natural history diorama, the “kingdom under glass” referenced in the title of your book. Certainly, many generations of schoolchildren have since been shushed and paraded past these depictions of animals across the globe. How do you think this experience has shaped our grown-up view of the world and our relationship to its wildlife?

Kirk: Well, I think we all must grow up thinking that animals are capable of standing very, very still and not blinking for impossible lengths of time. Actually, in all honesty, I think the dioramas very well instill a sense of the enchantment that nature can possess. Each of the dioramas is like a miniature enchanted kingdom. When I was a kid, and went to see the dioramas, I know that’s the way I felt — just filled with wonder. I think if we keep that sense of wonder as adults, we might be better stewards of the earth.

Quayle: His relationship with animals was complicated, to say the least. Was he trying to conquer the world or save it?

Kirk: He might have been trying to do both. Certainly, Akeley was intensely ambitious and driven. But ultimately his work is driven by a great concern to preserve and, therefore, save the animals. Even if at first he is only capable of saving the likeness, or image, of those animals.

Quayle: Akeley, as you describe him, was a man of many epiphanies over his evolving career. Did you have an epiphany of your own that made you want to write about him?

Kirk: I guess I’ve had an epiphany or two. I think at some point I really realized, on a gut level, how we are connected to the rest of nature, that the other creatures really are our cousins. This is an evolutionary fact, of course, but to really try and feel it can be somewhat liberating. Making that recognition, I think, can make us feel less exiled from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Quayle: Can you explain how, at the time Akeley was doing his work, taxidermy was seen as a conservation movement?

Kirk: I wouldn’t say taxidermy was seen as a conservation movement. It was just the means by which the natural history museums hoped to preserve images of these species which they felt were in danger of extinction. But the conservation movement was just getting started then, and it would influence Akeley’s thinking. His great epiphany, after all, is when he realizes while collecting mountain gorillas that it might be better to save their lives rather than just get a few dead stuffed copies.

Quayle: How did his feelings about this type of work change over the years?

Kirk: He never stopped being a taxidermist, but he did manage to persuade the Belgian government to create what would be the first wildlife sanctuary in Africa. If it weren’t for that, the mountain gorillas very likely would have gone extinct.

Quayle: Can you tell us a little about his “aha moment” regarding saving, rather than shooting, gorillas in the Congo?

Kirk: A lot of it had to do with his sudden feeling of disgust that he was a “murderer,” as he put it.

Quayle: How did the camera, and specifically Akeley’s contribution to photography, change things?

Kirk: Akeley’s invention of a better motion picture camera is one of the great happy ironies of the story. He had brought movie cameras along with him on previous expeditions, to use as a tool to make better taxidermy. He was so frustrated with the clunky nature of the machine, however, that in his spare time he would reinvent a much more capable camera. Of course, because of the improved movie cameras, people were soon able to start going on photographic safaris rather than shooting safaris.

Quayle: Visiting the Natural History Museum these days, Akeley’s collection seems a bit, well, creepy. Since museums are no longer in the business of killing animals to display them, what is the current view among those in the natural history field about these collections?

Kirk: It’s mixed. Some, like the Smithsonian, have done away with a good deal of their dioramas. I think they find them an embarrassment. On the other hand, the American Museum of Natural History in New York is quite protective of their dioramas. I wouldn’t expect to see them go away any time soon.

Quayle: Does taxidermy still have a role to play?

Kirk: Most of the taxidermists I know would give you a resounding “yes.” Personally, I’m not so sure. I think they serve best as artifacts.

Quayle: Akeley strangled a leopard with his bare hands?

Kirk: Indeed he did. That was a day, in retrospect, that I’m sure he wished he’d stayed in bed.

Quayle: And his wife left him for a monkey?

Kirk: It’s slightly more complicated than that, but the monkey played a fairly notable role in the disintegration of their marriage.

Quayle: If Akeley were alive to day, what would he be doing?

Kirk: I think he’d be combining his love of animals, and his cinematic expertise to be creating more inventive edutainment-type exhibitions at natural history museums. He might hunt on the weekends.

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