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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review: Kingdom Under Glass

"Seeing the sultan's interest, they attempted to explain their true purpose here in his land: that the man with the unruly beard and hartebeest blood on his hands was like a magician of sorts, who, when they returned to their own native country, would make the dead animals reappear just as they had in life, suspended for eternity, in something they called a diorama.  The sultan seemed perplexed.  If their purpose was to make the animal appear alive, why kill it in the first place?"

Walking down the darkened hallways of the Field Museum of Natural History, I passed by an endless array of birds, mammals, and reptiles, preserved through taxidermy for all time.  Some were arranged in rows, standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, for easy comparison.  Others were displayed in beautiful dioramas, decorated with rock-work and vegetation and stunningly detailed murals, posed in life-like social groups, frozen in time like three-dimensional photographs.  Many of these dioramas were the handiwork of Carl Akeley.  Akeley was to natural history museums what Carl Hagenbeck was to zoos - a visionary artist who changed how visitors perceived those institutions forever.

Rows and rows of stuffed animals aren't the only legacy that Carl Akeley left behind.  Kingdom Under Glass, by Jay Kirk, is the story of a remarkable man who, during the course of his career, embraced the paradox of being a prolific slaughterer of animals, hunting down some of the rarest of the rare to display in museums, while at the same time being one of their staunchest protectors.  It's a paradox that one encounters in many nineteenth and twentieth century naturalists, from the irascible William Hornaday to the illustrious President Theodore Roosevelt.  

From his humble roots in rural New York state, Carl Akeley pursued the profession of taxidermy as no one before him ever had.  Whereas others had viewed taxidermy as a crude form of upholstery - take a skin and stuff it with sawdust until it sort of resembles an animal - Akeley had a vision of it as an art form, one by which he would be able to capture the essence of an animal and let it live forever, a biological time capsule that all of the world would be able to enjoy forever.  His pursuit of this passion led him to museums in Milwaukee, then Chicago, and finally New York.  Most importantly, it led him to Africa.

One of the scenes - Summer - from Four Seasons, one of Carl Akeley's early masterpieces

In a series of expeditions across the continent, from the semi-desert of Somalia to the rainforests of the Congo, Akeley pursued every African mammal imaginable, generally in lethal terms (at one point, he wrestled a leopard to death, nearly costing him his arm).  One of the last animals he encountered in the hunt was one only relatively recently known to western science - the mountain gorilla.  Like many naturalists of the era, Akeley became a penitent butcher in the end and devoted himself to saving the animals he once hunted.  Among his most lasting legacies (which include not only several museum displays and films, but also inventions that he devised to assist in his work) was the establishment of Albert National Park (now Virunga National Park in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo), Africa's first National Park.

For those readers who have interests beyond hunting stories and history, Kingdom Under Glass also offers a love story.  Akeley never really worked alone; he was often accompanied by his wife.  Delia Akeley (also known as "Mickie") was her husband's strongest supporter and bravest companion, the kind who would race up a mountain, in the darkness, in a storm, to come to the aid of her husband after hearing that he'd been wounded by a bull elephant.  Carl's accomplishments and triumphs were equally hers, and if their contemporaries didn't acknowledge it, or her merits as an explorer in her own right, than Kirk certainly does.

Carl Akeley is the kind of person that many modern nature lover's love to hate - someone who experienced the natural world from the backside of a rifle.  Many of the animals he shot are now highly endangered, and for what? his critics would ask?  For skins?  Today we have so many other ways to learn about animals, so who needs them?  It's important to remember that, eighty years ago, no one had many other options for learning about animals - many of the species that Akeley collected were barely represented in zoos - and the knowledge that he and his contemporaries gathered in the field formed the basis of much of what we know about the wildlife of Africa.  This in turn provided society with the first tools it needed in learning how to protect that wildlife.

Carl Akeley wasn't a perfect person - there were times reading his biography I found him scarcely likable.  Still, he left a legacy that includes some fascinating inventions, breath-taking museum pieces that continue to inspire and awe millions, and a piece of Africa set aside for one of its rarest inhabitants.  He also leaves an incredible story, which I'm glad that someone like Jay Kirk has taken the time to research and share with the world.   

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