Carl Akeley

Carl Akeley, widely considered “the Father of Modern Taxidermy,” was not only a taxidermist, but also a naturalist, sculptor, writer and inventor. Over his long career he worked for several different museums, including the Field Museum, serving as Chief Taxidermist from 1896 to 1909. He made two expeditions to Africa for the Field to bring back specimens for the collections and for display. Most of his taxidermy is still on display in the hall of African mammals, Nature Walk, and the other mammal displays. A visionary and an obsessive artist, brought to his work, in the words of one colleague, a “quality of truthfulness, combined with [a] love of beauty of the animal form—beauty of hide, of muscle, of bone, of facial expressions.”   

Born on a farm near Clarendon, New York, Akeley said he was always more interested in taxidermy than farming. He was first exposed to taxidermy at an exhibit in Rochester that displayed 50 small mammals and birds preserved by interior designer and part-time taxidermist David Bruce. Akeley, 12 at the time, tried his own hand at preserving animals soon after. When a cousin’s canary died, he asked if he could “fix” the bird. He took it home and proceeded to skin and stuff it and then added glass beads from his mother’s sewing kit for eyes. His cousin was delighted. Taxidermy quickly became his obsession and for the next six years he taught himself as much as he could about the subject.      

At the age of 18, Akeley traveled to Brockport, New York to work for David Bruce under the condition that Bruce would allow him to practice taxidermy in his shop at night. Bruce hired him, but was so impressed with Akeley's skill at taxidermy that he suggested Akeley work for Professor Henry Ward at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. Akeley took his mentor’s advice and traveled to the Establishment, bringing with him business cards he had made proclaiming his trade as “artistic taxidermy in all its branches.” Ward agreed to take Akeley on for $3.50 a week.

Ward's Natural Science Establishment

Akeley was required to work from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm with no sick leave or holidays. In later years Akeley claimed that Ward’s was employing the “upholsterer’s method of mounting animals” when he arrived. In fact, the techniques were quite well advanced at Ward’s, and reflected the state of the art at the time. Akeley was working alongside such pioneers of the art as William Temple Hornaday, Frederick Lucas, and Frederick Webster. His later reflection that the work was “neither scientific nor artistic” may partly reflect his own high standards, but smacks of self-aggrandizement as well. Akeley began to experiment with new methods after hours, often working through the night to try new methods of skinning and mounting.

Akeley had his fair share of problems during his employment at Ward's: he made enemies out of his co-workers who were jealous of his ambitions and talent and was eventually fired for sleeping on the job after spending the night working on new techniques. Akeley was shocked and hurt after being fired, and headed to New York to find work. He got a job with John Wallace, a commercial taxidermist, stuffing anything and everything. Akeley butted heads with Wallace who was “irascible and dominating,” and he was again on the verge of unemployment. Fortunately, Professor Ward realized his mistake and invited the young taxidermist back.

After Akeley returned to the Establishment in 1884, two important events took place. First, he met fellow taxidermist William Morton Wheeler who would have a profound effect on Akeley’s life. The other was the mounting of Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s prized elephant in 1885, after Jumbo's untimely death due to a terrible train accident, William Critchley and Akeley were sent to complete the five-month-long project of preserving him; according to Wheeler, Critchley let his younger colleague take the lead. (The popular story that they inflated the pachyderm to larger-than-life-size at Barnum’s insistence is apocryphal—Barnum’s business partner urged the showman to make Jumbo “look natural,” and elephant hide does not stretch.)

In 1886, Wheeler convinced Akeley to work for the Milwaukee Public Museum, first as a contractor, then as staff taxidermist. During this period Akeley was an early adopter of a manikin method comprising a wooden armature bulked out with wire mesh to form the animal’s contours; the mesh shell was covered with a plaster-fiber mixture and sculpted into the final form. In 1890 he produced a habitat diorama of muskrat life, which remains a landmark in the history of dioramas. He left the MPM in 1892 to pursue contract work, and made another taxidermic splash with three broncos for the Smithsonian's exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

The British Museum offered Akeley a job in 1895, but during a visit to Chicago, zoologist D.G. Elliot lured him to the Field Museum with contract taxidermy work, and later sweetened the deal with an expedition to Somalia, which sparked Akeley’s life-long love of Africa. It was on this trip that Akeley came face to face with an 80-pound leopard that he famously killed “with his bare hands.” 

In 1902 he unveiled the landmark “Four Seasons of the Virginia Deer,” four groups of white-tail deer surrounded by their natural habitat during each of the seasons. It was during the creation of these groups that Akeley developed the method that made his reputation: a hollow manikin of mesh-reinforced papier-mâché, cast from a mold made from an accurate clay sculpture of a specific animal. The extraordinarily lifelike figures and “attitudes” he achieved with those 16 deer took taxidermy to a new level of artfulness and realism. In addition, their lightness facilitated the creation of groups and dioramas, which were on the rise in museums; as AMNH Director (and veteran taxidermist) Frederic Lucas observed “it seems never to have occurred to the users of plaster that museum specimens are moved about . . . so they made their manikins solid” such that “it required an effort to lift so small an object as a fox, it took four strong men to handle a deer.” The U.S. museum world was soon buzzing about the dioramas; in fall 1901, explorer-conservationist and soon-to-be U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt made a bee-line to the Field Museum to see them himself). “The Akeley Method” of manikin construction was widely adopted by his protégés and peers, and became the gold standard for taxidermy in the U.S. for decades.  

In 1905, Akeley led a Field Museum expedition to Kenya, this time accompanied by his wife Delia, whom he had met in Milwaukee. The couple collected two bull elephants (Delia took down the largest of the pair). Akeley transported the skins back to The Field Museum and in 1908-09 created one of his most notable works and a Field Museum icon, The Fighting African Elephants, which can still be seen today in Stanley Field Hall.

Carl Akeley was also accomplished outside of the world of taxidermy. He was a successful inventor, earning patents for over 30 inventions, including a “cement gun” and the sprayable cement called gunite (termed “shotcrete” in a later formulation). He also invented the Akeley Motion Picture Camera, which was widely adopted by nature filmmakers and newsreel cameramen, and eventually became an essential tool for Hollywood action films and aerial dramas. In the teens he became an accomplished sculptor of African wildlife; his three life-size Nandi Lion Spearing bronzes are on display on the Field’s ground floor.

Akeley left the Field Museum in 1909 to do contract work, principally for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. During his association with the AMNH, he began work on the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and became a pioneer in the study of mountain gorillas. During his travels, Akeley was disturbed by the wanton destruction of the gorillas by “sportsmen,” and became a staunch advocate for a national park devoted to their protection. King Albert I of Belgium created the Parc Nacional Albert in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1925. One of the central ironies of museum taxidermy in the late 19th and early 20th was the collecting and mounting of threatened species to document them for posterity, and inspire the public about the value of wildlife, and advocate for its protection, and no one embodied this irony more than Akeley. While it may seem strange today, taxidermy and conservation went hand-in-hand during this period, and Akeley was a committed conservationist. Besides his role in creating the gorilla reserve, he was a charter member of the Board of Directors of the John Burroughs Memorial Association, and, in the words of the Belgian ambassador at the time, a member and “leading spirit” of the National Parks Association, the New York State Forestry Association, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, the National Audubon Society, and other conservation organizations. A year after the gorilla reserve was created, on an expedition for the AMNH, Akeley contracted a fever and died. He is buried on the saddle between Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Mikeno in the land he loved—as he termed it in the title of his memoirs—"Brightest Africa.”  

Although the AMNH Africa Hall was undeniably Akeley’s grandest vision, it was barely started at the time of his death. He was busier inventing and collecting than he was mounting animals during the AMNH years—he and his assistants created three temporary groups (elephants, gorillas, lions), and mounted a total of 15 animals (four elephants, five gorillas, five lions, and one okapi). While his AMNH work marks a dramatic final chapter in Akeley’s artistic career, he produced the bulk of his taxidermy output, and most of his best work, for the Field. In his 14 years at the Field, Akeley did 23 groups, and 120+ separate animals (including those in the groups), and transformed taxidermy and dioramas in the process. “The Four Seasons” series was pivotal in the history of dioramas—termed by AMNH Director Lucas as a “high-water mark” in the trend, and highlighted by Karen Wonders, in her masterful study of habitat dioramas, as “the first large mammal groups with painted backgrounds to be displayed in a scientific institution.” Taxidermy aficionados call the groups Akeley’s “Guernica,” or his “Citizen Kane”—a stunning achievement that he never surpassed. 

More broadly, although Akeley tended to diminish the technical accomplishments of his predecessors, and ignore the artistic foundation that he was building on, it may have been due to the obliviousness that is often common to geniuses, rather than an outsized ego. There is no question that his innovations in taxidermy and diorama design transformed museum presentation; his legacy lives on, in the “Carl E. Akeley Award” presented by the World Taxidermy Championship (the American Shotcrete Association presents one annually as well), and, to some degree, in every wildlife diorama in the U.S. 

For more information, see the Field Museum Library’s Carl Akeley Libguide.