Press Release: New exhibition showcases work by the Field Museum’s first African American taxidermist

January 17, 2020 Exhibition

Opens in time for Black History Month and Free February

Every exhibit at the Field Museum has its own history—someone had to build all the cases, write all the descriptions, and figure out how to display the objects inside. The Field’s newest exhibition shines a spotlight on one of these people: Carl Cotton, the museum’s first African American taxidermist. As part of Black History Month, A Natural Talent: The Taxidermy of Carl Cotton, opening January 31, will celebrate Cotton’s legacy.

“Six months ago Carl Cotton was almost a complete mystery to us,” says Tori Lee, an exhibition developer at the Field Museum who led the project. “Now I know all these pieces of the museum I love were created by him. When I walk up to one of his displays, I can see this black man creating it. The best part is, now other people do too.”

The project is part of the Field’s first official observance of Black History Month. “Celebrating Black History Month, featuring an African American who made such a significant contribution to the museum’s 125-year history, demonstrates diversity and inclusion in action for our staff,” says Reda Brooks, a budget coordinator in the Field’s Exhibitions department who led the museum’s BHM efforts. “It provides the Field an opportunity to share with the Chicago community its desire to create more enlightening, inspiring programs and exhibits about people of color and our cultures.”

A Natural Talent tells the story of Cotton, who worked at the Field for nearly 25 years as a taxidermist—an artist who creates realistic animal forms, often using real skins. The show’s narrative traces Cotton’s youth in Washington Park on the city’s South Side, where from an early age he was fascinated with preserving animals. Without access to big game, he stuffed what was available—squirrels, birds, and even family pets—and served the unofficial role of community taxidermist. After serving in the Navy in WWII, he began working at the Field in 1947.

Promoted to staff taxidermist in 1952, Cotton specialized in birds. But, unlike a typical taxidermist, he was also talented in mounting mammals, reptiles, and fish as well as creating environmental elements. His most famous work—Marsh Birds of the Upper Nile—is on permanent display in the Field’s Bird Habitats Hall. Cotton worked at the Field until his death in 1971, and his displays are still viewed by thousands of people every day.

To create this exhibition, which features taxidermy, interviews, and archival footage and images, Lee conducted extensive research and met with Cotton’s relatives, who helped to tell his story.

“As I kept digging, I found more and more of myself in Cotton’s story. Like me, he made exhibits on the fourth floor of the museum. Like me, he was a black person working at an institution with a complicated racial history. When visitors see this exhibit, I hope they see themselves in Cotton’s passion and determination to follow his dreams. I hope to work alongside more Carl Cottons in the future!” says Lee.

A Natural Talent: The Taxidermy of Carl Cotton will open January 31 and close on October 4, 2020. The exhibition is included with general admission; general admission to the Field is free the entire month of February for all Illinois residents during Free February.

The Field would like to thank the relatives and descendants of Carl W. Cotton as well as Timuel and Zenobia Black for their help and support.