Halls of Stuffed Animals
Archipelago, Polly Morgan, 2012
From Lapham’s Quarterly:
In a lozenge-shaped hall just beyond the main entrance to the museum, builders constructed a series of chambers to house the “habitat dioramas.” Each chamber was fitted like an alcove with a 180 degree curved wall, providing maximum depth-projection for the artists who were commissioned to paint the backdrop—the Serengeti Plain, or a bank of the Upper Nile, the slopes of Mount Kenya, a forest beside the Zambezi River. The foreground, raised on a concealed platform, was then dressed with the accessories, every stone or tuft of grass positioned exactly as it had been in the wild, and finally the mounted animals were introduced. The taxidermists fussed lovingly over their creation—kudu, cheetahs, nyala, rhinoceros, lions, giraffes, chimpanzees, mandrills—giving their coats a final brush, spraying a bit more fixative here or pigment there, before stepping out of the front of the chamber (out of Africa, so to speak), which was then sealed with a panoramic plate-glass viewing window.
At its completion in 1936, the Hall of African Mammals, also known as the Akeley Hall, consisted of twenty-eight dioramas arranged in two tiers around a freestanding central tableau called “The Alarm,” a herd of eight elephants poised to charge out of the hall’s vast portal. The hall was dimly lit, its outline barely discernible, so that the internal glow of each diorama was accentuated. The effect was of a static carousel seen from the inside: nothing moved except the visitor. The animals, held in their poses forever, fixed their gaze toward a distant horizon of veld, forest, or mountains; some were turned to face the viewer beyond the glass, as if arrested by the possibility of an intruder. Akeley’s silverback gorilla rose to his full height against a backdrop of the Congo’s steaming Kivu volcanoes, beating his chest to announce ownership of this territory.
“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. “They do not know what is meant by yesterday or today; they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn to night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see, for though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness.” Man, Nietzsche believed, suffered from the “malady of history”; he knew too much, was “made ashamed or fretful or sleepless by thought.” The nonhuman animal was not required to reflect; it “lives unhistorically, for it is contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left out.” It is this, the unmediated full moment, the “forgetfulness” of the animal, that the diorama seems to capture.
And yet, for the human, the moment passes, a thought intrudes like a mugger: consciousness insists that this is a memory, a quotation of reality and not the thing itself. In these silent, airtight time capsules, there is no breeze to stir the animals’ pelage or alert them to a predator. Their nostrils do not twitch, their hearts do not beat. They represent the production of permanence, and this is their melancholy fate. They cannot speak, but they tell us something: Remember we are dead; this is our burial chamber.
Barnum’s American Museum, New York City, 1858