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Season 2, Episode 4 · 3 years ago

Episode 204 - Behind The Glass

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Here you are. You stand in the entrance hall of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, New York City. After walking up the steps of the large concrete building and through the front doors, you stand in a spacious arched room, joined by others, people from all over the world and from right here in New York, eager to enter. Two large dinosaurs sit in the center of the room, their skulls appearing to scrape the domed ceiling. As children, we've all visited natural history museums at least once. If it wasn't for a history class, it was probably for a science class. The permission slips, the bus rides and that ever so exciting moment when you first walked in. We all remember it. If you're from New York City, you probably have this memory of walking into the American Museum and stumbling into the Brontosaurus and allosaurus skeletons that stand in the middle of the Roosevelt rotender room. You hear the echoing footsteps of patrons as they passed through the large open space, marble pillars lining the walls, the arching pattern ceilings soaring above you. If you walk straight ahead through two of these pillars, you'll find yourself in the Agley Hall of African Mammals. In the center of the room marked seven large elephants, trunks outstretched to greet you. Surrounding the elephants are two stories of Glass Dioramas, each illuminated from within. You turn to the right and start to wander around the room, immediately coming to the first Dirama, filled with a variety of animals, zebras, a Giraffe, even an intricately painted scene of African planes in the background, with the elephants to your left. You continue to walk around, gazing into each Diorama, one pain of glass after another, passing water, Buffalo, Greater Kudu, a group of lions...

...and then Gamsbach. You wander the rounded room until you wind up back where you started, at the final Diorama of the first floor, three large mountain gorillas in a green, mountainous jungle. Your eyes are drawn to one figure in particular, the largest of the three gorillas, standing tall, fists poised at his chest. This is Clarence, shot and killed by taxidermist and creator of this hall, the man whose name it bears, Carl Akeley, and this is where our story starts. Hi I'm Celia and I'm Elizabeth. Welcome to the third episode of here you are, season two. Nature reconstructed behind the glass. In this episode we will explore the American Museum of Natural History and its most famous exhibit of all the Dioramas in the hall of African Mammals and the animals that lie within them. Neither alive nor fully dead, the animals are suspended in a state of living death. Looking upon them, questions run into your mind. Why are they here? What kind of experience did the creators intend to inspire and what did they tell us about humans and the environment? As we will hear, the origins and creation of this famous room tell a familiar story about environmental decline. Just as we today grapple with the meaning and response to climate change, Akleys Hall was a response to extinction. In his own day, Akley wondered how he could get people to save these animals before it was too late, how he could inspire action and people far removed from the places these animals came from. To understand his solution, we must look directly at these animals, or, in our case, the eyes of the once alive silverback guerrilla Clarence museums of natural history were first created in the early sixteenth century, but back then they were private collections with limited accessibility, mostly catering to the scientific community. In Sixteen thirty five, the Museum Nacional Dustouich Natroub in Paris, France, was the first private collection to be structured as natural history museums are today. Scholars wanted to start educating the public...

...about species from not just local and national regions, but from across the globe. A huge part of this education was to make these collections open to the community so that everyone had access to the same specimens as scientists. Therefore, natural history museums became vessels of education. The American Museum of Natural History opened in one thousand eight hundred and sixty nine, exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, as the creation of Albert Smith Bickmore, a zoology student from Harvard University. After gaining the backing of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and JP Morgan, bickmore's idea for a museum in New York City came to fruition in one thousand nine hundred and eight. After numerous museum presidents had come and gone, a man by the name of Henry Fairfield Osborne was selected for this position and became the museum's first president. Was Scientific Training. Under his direction, the museum grew both in size and in intellect. In its development, Osborne emphasized, in the words of writer and biographer Penelope Boudrey Sanders, the potential for marrying artistic values to science to create beautiful, compelling exhibits. These exhibits could communicate the order and splendor of the natural world while at the same time disseminating information about it. It was under Osborne that the idea for the Akeley Hall of African Mammals was originally proposed at its creation began. Sanders describes Akley's desire for the hall that a visitor, as he passes from group to group, may have the illusion, at worst of passing a series of pictures of Primeval Africa and at best, may think for a moment that he has stepped five thousand miles across the sea into Africa itself. Akley ultimately wanted to create an experience, and this was how the idea of Dioramas came about. Going around the Acley Hall you see one display after another animals poised a still life behind glass, complete with intricate background paintings of nature and replicas of plants and rocks.

You Gaze in again at Clarence, the mountain gorilla, standing fiercely as he looks you head on. These scenes were created with intention for a reason. But why? Was this the answer to a lack of scientific education and to establishing public understanding and appreciation? Just think, there was no TV. How did you know about anything other than a deer and a beaver in the place where you live back then? You know, so that's how you found out about like the whole world. This is Dr Bob Minkley. He's a biology professor at the University of Rochester and also oversees a variety of taxidermied specimens from the collections of Henry Ward, a naturalist and taxidermist from Rochester, New York, under whom Akley worked for many years. It's through this work that Minkley has come to learn a lot about the history of taxidermy and Dioramas as tools once used to teach natural history. Dioramas were incredibly powerful and that at this time no one had the feasibility of easily accessing information on the lives of these animals. The start of the conservation movement right, right when people started appreciating, like others, all this diversity and easy and you know, Darwin if it was if the specimen was in one eight hundred and eighty specimen, that was twenty years after the origin of species, right. So people were just even appreciating how that diversity was generated by, yeah, a selection. So so it is it ironic? Right? It's this weird double edged sword. In the present day we can look at videos and images online and stream documentaries. The information is at our fingertips. But at this time these dioramas were the only opportunity for most people to experience this kind of nature and see these animals. Author Jay Kirk, in his biography kingdom underglass, quotes Osborne that the point of the Aquey Hall was not just to divert an amuse but to...

...fix a reality for time to come and to extend the actual experience of consciousness. There is an element to the DIORAMAS and to the hall that goes beyond simply educating. Both Osborne and Akley held a firm desire to connect the patrons of the museum and the general public back to the natural world and to do so in a raw, unfiltered way. They ultimately wanted to establish a heightened environmental awareness and sympathy things that were disappearing ever increasingly at this time period and that many fought to bring back. At the close of the nineteen century, American Society came to believe the United States natural abundance had reached its limit. The closing of the frontier, the end of the Indian wars in the extinction of the buffalo were symptomatic of that change. Many trace the beginning of this process to the industrial revolution and a cultural transformation that became known as the great separation. So the great separation is a term used to capture a cognitive shift that happened during industrialization, where humanity supposedly lifted off in some ways the determined as the determinism of ecology, of the time frames of nature, of nature's restraints, and so it's it's a myth really. This is Leyland, a deer professor of environmental humanities at the University of Rochester. The great separation is, it's labeling mental or cognitive or a sort of philosophical shift that didn't actually really happen. Humanity is still dependent on nature, but somehow, through modernity and industrializations, certain humans believe that they had transcended. As a reaction to...

...this transcendence and the desire to resist the separation, a group of wealthy Americans founded two movements that would become the base of modern environmentalism, conservation and preservation. Conservationist like Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pincho sought to protect the wilderness for generations to come. The purpose of nature, in their eyes, was to serve humanity, yet only through wise managed use could people assure a perpetual balance between nature protection and industry. On the other side of the environmental movement where the preservationists like John Weir and Henry David Throau, who sought to set aside nature untouched from human activity and to preserve wilderness spaces in their purest forms. They believed in the importance of nature for nature's sake. Because of this duality, with both sides founded on a desire to hold on to the disappearing natural world, the preservationist movement resulted in art focus around nature. With this, however, came a sort of Romanticism tied to the idea of nature, depicting it as beautiful, serene and even idealistic. The goal is not only to elicit sympathy in regards to its demise, to almost prove to people its intrinsic value. taxidermists were romantic conservationist to and Aquey in William Hornaday, where it's most famous practitioners get to look at their work, was to also see a preservationist view of nature. There's a really interesting tension in modern life going on where the more the environment is destroyed, the more there is a romantic longing for it, and it's often called primitivism. It's this desire to turn back the clock, to in any fashion, to and to look at the past and to look at, you know, supposedly simpler, more natural times as the solution, as the space of meaning, as we destroy ecological full, you know, diversity. Well, the taxodermy of these museums did indeed involve conservation.

Teddy Roosevelt was instrumental in the creation of the American Museum of Natural History. The DIORAMAS are preservationist in their design. When we observe these animals sitting in their glass boxes, it's almost as if the creators wanted to freeze time, to hold on to a piece of the past, of another time. And behind all this is that romantic coloring of nature, so inseparable from the preservationist movement itself. They face you as you watch them. They stand in full glory, maybe even appearing to be stopped in motion, but ultimately they are barely animals anymore. They aren't alive. They are Akley's depiction of nature. The DIORAMAS are product of akleys imagination. This French philosopher named Bruno La tour and he has this theory that what is Khin essentially modern. And there's so many theories of like what is modern, what is maternity? But he says what's quintessentially modern is this fantasy of separation, even while humanity is constantly in modern times making these hybrid modern human nature forms. So even right there, like the the animals, they've been hybridized, most of their bodies gone, is just skin. So even the animal has been turned into this hybrid and them put behind glass and then in a museum. So it's this actually this total nature human hybrid. Modern humans are in this constant, almost schizophrenic state of like we've conquered nature, but yet and we're separated from nature, and yet we're constantly intertwining with nature in all these new novel ways make me want to show people the beauty and value of nature, even through an artifice like his dioramas. To him, his creations were experiences, windows into another world, into a reality that had becomes so distant from the nineteen century Western society. But these creations are simply that. They are manipulated, pieces of...

...something once living and breathing, now placed in a box, forever trapped in time. The taxit are to mean animal, then, is a physical paradox, both in form and in function. Its body, it represents nature, but is in fact a product of human labor. Then there's a contradiction between how they are made and goals of conservation, the fact that these animals were killed to promote their salvation. I just keep thinking control. There's in rather than relinquishing control and letting the other, like any ecological other, whether it's plants or animals or just the earth, whether it rather than letting these beings be and do their thing and letting nature have its s space, there's this constant attempt to control and to put it into human frames and to put it in, you know, to bring it into human frames, not only like the frame of a museum or a frame of Diorama, but also like our cultural value frames, are philosophical frames. What is an ethical imagination like? Can we stretch our mind enough to actually be able to allow space for other nests and not just like, put it into like human form, human ideas, human spaces? Akally wanted to bring people into the natural world, even in the midst of industrial, concrete and metal civilization. The purpose of the Natural History Museum was to educate, to inform, but it was education beyond facts and details, a sort of experiential enlightenment. Akley felt that if he could not simply show these animals to people, but place them in their presence, a type of mental transformation would occur. Yet within all of this exists...

...a perpetual separation, in the words of Leilon a deer. There is a need to put things in human frames. taxidermy is just that. It's a picking a part of nature and a reconfiguring of its elements into a setup, a framework that fits western culture. At this time, despite Akley, Osborne and others desires, they were still living and working in a separated world. American photographer James Baylog talks in his documentary on a glacial ice, milk chasing ice, about the importance of conveying to people the reality of the human nature connection. We us a culture. We're forgetting that we are actually natural organisms and that we have this very, very deep connection in contact with nature. You can't divorce civilization from nature. We totally depend on it. We rewind now to nineteen twenty one, where Akley stands alone on the edge of a cliff on Mount Machano in the Belgian Congo. In this clearing, he stands face to face with a gorilla. With the wind in his ears and his eyes locked on clearances, Akley carefully readjusts his footing so as to not slip over the edge. Suddenly, the gorilla charges. Akley lifts his gun, aiming carefully, and prepares for the recoil of the gun against his body and of the death against his heart. Determined to share this creature with the world and intrigued by its exoticism, Akley's expedition to Africa was one filled with the excitement of adventure, the longing to capture nature at its purest and the pain of sacrifice in order to save it. Clarence is death and subsequent taxidermied afterlife to find Akley's future and the future of his profession. The diorama of Clarence provided a model that natural history museums all over the world copied for decades,...

...and even as we recognize the hybrid, fabricated nature of Clarence, it is still possible to glimpse a leis original vision. Go again to the Amh to acleas hall and find Clarence. Stare face to face with this magnificent gorilla and consider, if only for a second, that he who was once alive, that he who was an individual, and in doing so you just might transcend the marble hall, the classical building, the bustling city that surrounds you, and be brought back to the precipice of that uncanny valley between death and still life, between humans and nature, and feel, however briefly, moved. What taxidermy shows us is what Western society has done and how we have reacted to environmental decline, this desire to be close to nature but still live in an industrial society. We exist in this paradox of needing to interconnect ourselves with nature, but we maintain the constant in ability to relinquish control and relinquish the luxuries we've created for ourselves. Through taxidermy. We formulate fake natural realities, believing this is enough, believing that seeing clearance with our eyes will close the gap between an industrial, real civilization and nature. But we're still separated, we're still distant, we're stuck behind the glass, close but never quite a part of it. Here you are is a podcast created by students at the University of Rochester. This episode is produced by me Celia Cono and hosted by both myself and Elizabeth Tie. Our engineer was Zoe James. The music used on this episode was performed by Joshua Copperman, scarica, Ricassa Remy Bourgeois, due to Leil quietest MANOLA's Mumusias, Marcus Lantis, diet a grammy and Pottington...

...bear. We'd also like to thank Bob Mankley and Layla and Nader for the interviews. The coordinating producers for this season of here you are are Maya Lapard and Liam ustus. The executive producers are Thomas Leischman and Steven rest. Here you are is made possible by the teaching innovation brant at the University of process. Be sure to check out the other episodes of here you are, season two. Nature, reconstructive at here you arecom.

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