Striped Hyenas, Taxidermy, and Science

I don’t often contribute to crowdsourced fundraising, but I did last night. I gave some of my graduate student stipend to the IndieGogo campaign to help The Brain Scoop and The Field Museum build a new diorama–striped hyenas.

Striped Hyenas at the Field Museum, Chicago

Striped Hyenas at the Field Museum, Chicago

Why this diorama? and more importantly, Why did I give to this particular campaign?

Emily Graslie, host of The Brain Scoop, makes the argument for this diorama, though her reasoning is largely historical: Carl Akeley was a great character; dioramas recreate a particular place that has all but disappeared; the number of hyenas has dramatically diminished.

These are all good reasons for funding a project like this one. But what is the scientific value of this diorama, or of dioramas in general? I offer three ideas:

1) Dioramas recreate a specific place. They have several parts that contribute to the realness of a place, including the painted, curved background, the plants, rocks, and floor in the foreground, and the taxidermy animals themselves. Early diorama creators, like Frank Michler Chapman, developed the technique to recreate disappearing places that had drawn the attention of conservationists, such as Pelican Island, among the last rookeries for brown pelicans.

Pelican Group, rebuilt, North American Bird Hall, 1960. American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

Pelican Group, rebuilt, North American Bird Hall, 1960. American Museum of Natural History, New York City. Digital Special Collections, image number 327556

2) Dioramas tell a story. Carl Akeley was a naturalist and explorer alongside his talents in sculpture and taxidermy. Perhaps key to his famous taxidermy was his well-tuned skills in observation. He saw behaviors in animals that he recreated in his taxidermy. Though some critique his dioramas as masculine, capitalistic, imperialistic—Donna Haraway in “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” (Social Text 1984), especially—or as promoting a normative heterosexual nuclear family unit, Akeley based his dioramas largely in observation.*

3) Dioramas promote conservation. The irony of taxidermy is that it’s supposed to show us a specimen that is nearly lost. But in order to get that specimen into a museum, it must be killed, thereby depleting the species’ number by one (or more, if creating a group). This irony was not lost on Akeley, who then worked to develop protected areas, such as Albert National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo (now Virunga National Park), where Akeley died in an expedition to study and collect mountain gorillas.

This doesn’t answer why I chose to give to this particular project. It’s not often that we get to be a part of something that is (a) both scientifically and historically significant, (b) do it from a distance, and (c) watch the project grow, impacting millions of people.

When I first visited the Field Museum in November 2014, I was struck by the odd placement of the hyenas—they don’t belong next to reptiles. What’s more is that I recognized the display as something of Akeley’s. I’ve been studying museum taxidermy for a while, since it’s the subject of my dissertation research, and the immediate recognition was exhilarating. In front of the striped hyenas, I knew that I could do this project, and that I had internalized the material to the point of identifying taxidermy styles and lines of influence.

If you’re inclined, contribute to this cause. You don’t have much more time to give to the online campaign, but I hope you’ll help make the striped hyenas meaningful for decades (and centuries!) to come.

*This, too, is problematic, as observation and creation are heavily influenced by anticipation of what we’re supposed to see. I’ll write about this in a later post.

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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