Remaking Akeley's Striped Hyenas Diorama
In 2015, our science/education YouTube channel, The Brain Scoop, teamed up with museum fans from all over the world to fund the creation of the Field Museum’s first new habitat diorama in about 60 years. Thanks to more than 1,500 contributors from across the globe, the six-week campaign raised enough money to move a group of striped hyenas to a brand-new home in the William V. Kelley Hall (Mammals of Asia). These animals were originally mounted in 1899 by Carl Akeley but had endured 25 years of “temporary” confinement in the Reptile Hall. While the physical move was a matter of a few hundred feet, it was a long, strange trip. And it all started in Africa in 1896.
From Somaliland to Chicago
Avid Field Museum fans and natural history aficionados need no introduction to Carl Akeley. He was a renowned taxidermist, museum collector, and conservationist, who collected some of the Museum’s most iconic specimens. You can learn more about the Father of Modern Taxidermy.
At the turn of the century, large animals were hunted by museums for display—a practice we no longer follow, of course. But in those days, taxidermy mounts and dioramas played an important role in educating the public about wildlife before the advent of movies, let alone television and the internet.
In 1896, Akeley was part of the first American-led museum expedition to Africa—specifically, Somaliland, an autonomous region in the country of Somalia. Akeley and his team returned to the United States with over 200 specimens—including four striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena). Akeley and his assistants immediately set about creating “habitat groups”—scenes depicting specimens of a single species (usually a family group) in realistic settings. The striped hyena group was unveiled in 1899 at our original building in Jackson Park.
Hyenas on the move
The hyenas made the move to the current Field Museum building in 1920 and were displayed with the rest of Akeley’s Africa groups after the museum opened in May of 1921. (Akeley had moved to New York in 1909, and later died on an expedition to Africa in 1926.) The building also included a space for a Hall of Asian Mammals, with room for 20 dioramas. The taxidermy and installation proceeded apace, even during the Great Depression. However, in the 1940s, with the Asian mammals hall nearly full, the administration turned its attention to filling in the nearby Hall of Birds, which was still largely empty. A pair of Malay tapirs, unveiled in 1954, was the last group to be installed in the Hall of Asian Mammals. That left one diorama shell vacant.
That vacant space was not completely forgotten. Long-employed staff knew it was there. Occasionally, thought was given to filling it, but none of the ideas gained any traction. That began to change in late 1985, when Paul Brunsvold joined the Exhibitions Department. One of Paul’s first tasks after being hired was troubleshooting lighting and replacing bulbs in dioramas. As he recalls, "One day, while crawling around in those light boxes above the Asian Mammal Hall dioramas, I found myself peering into a dark diorama space that I hadn’t ever noticed from the ground. It was a finished space! The back wall was finished and primed, the floor was filled with trays of finished wax foliage . . . it was absolutely beautiful. The last unfinished diorama space in the whole museum! My fantasy button went into high gear."
It should be noted here that Paul is also a professional taxidermist, hence his excitement at discovering a “lost” diorama space. After a little investigating, Paul learned that there had been talk in earlier years of installing a group featuring a cheetah chasing some Asiatic gazelles. The project was never carried out, but Paul kept this opportunity in the back of his mind.
It was a finished space! The back wall was finished and primed, the floor was filled with trays of finished wax foliage . . . it was absolutely beautiful. The last unfinished diorama space in the whole museum! My fantasy button went into high gear.Paul Brunsvold
Over the following five years, the Museum was winding down a major slate of exhibition renovations: Egypt, two Pacific halls, Africa, and three “Animal Kingdom” halls. As part of the latter project, around 1990, the striped hyenas were moved into the Reptile hall. “So,” as Paul relates, “for all those years we had reptiles on one end and beautiful bird dioramas in the other, and that big case of striped hyenas gnawing on a carcass sitting right in the middle.”
And that empty diorama shell in the back of Paul’s mind. . .
Release the beasts
The math seemed simple: orphaned hyenas + empty space = new diorama, right? But there were other factors to be considered. First, those four hyenas had been collected in Somaliland, and the vacant space was in the Mammals of Asia hall. Happily, as Paul determined with some research, the species is also indigenous to Asia. He approached the Director of Exhibitions, who loved the idea. But with all those major permanent hall renovations—and another gearing up (DNA to Dinosaurs now known as Evolving Planet)—the timing, staffing, and budget just weren't right.
The years passed. The hyenas waited patiently, as did Paul. In the early 2000s a new Director of Exhibitions asked staff for exhibit ideas. Paul once again pitched relocating the hyenas, complete with budgets and CGI renderings of the final product. There was initial interest, but the idea fizzled when the boss saw the decidedly unattractive specimens. Paul tried with two subsequent exhibition heads, but lack of interest and funds meant the hyenas stayed put, neighbors to snakes and alligators.
In late 2010, Paul retired to Minnesota. Before he left the Field, he gave his hyena file—photos of the taxidermy animals, the empty diorama bay, and a budget—to our current Director of Exhibitions, Jaap Hoogstraten. As Jaap recalls, “He made me promise to get this done.”
The power of the crowd
While the hyenas sat locked in an 1899 display case, the world changed. Social media and crowdfunding were invented—powerful tools that were capable of promoting and raising money for niche projects. In April 2015, The Brain Scoop host and Field's Chief Curiosity Correspondent Emily Graslie was looking for an exhibition project. She asked Jaap if he had any ideas. As Jaap reports, "I said h*** yes and showed her Paul’s folder, which I had kept on my desk all those years. A big part of why I wanted this done was to underscore the fact that dioramas still had currency with visitors and to demonstrate that young people would give money for taxidermy."
Emily liked the idea, too. She used the power of social media to kick off a campaign to crowdfund the Project Hyena Diorama, the Museum’s first full-scale habitat diorama in more than 60 years. The Brain Scoop team created a video telling the story of the empty diorama space and why the project was so important. They made the ask and crossed their fingers. The crowdfunding campaign got attention from NPR’s All Things Considered, Chicago Reader, and other outlets. In the end, around 1,500 contributors helped raise more than $150,000 in just six weeks. The museum-loving community came through.
A new home for the old hyenas
Obviously, Jaap's conviction that dioramas still work was borne out by the crowd. Today, as in 1899, dioramas put visitors face-to-face with environments and animals from around the globe. They transport viewers to the animals' habitat at a moment in history where species, geography, and plant life all interact. Akeley collected numerous African mammals because he knew their populations were shrinking, and he wanted to preserve them for the public. There is stark irony in that, but Akeley wasn't wrong. Striped hyenas are now in decline due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Preserving them and their habitat for visitors to learn about and appreciate helps fuel awareness and conservation efforts.
The project came to fruition thanks to the work of writers, curators, artists, craftspeople, and conservators. More than 50 team members worked on different aspects of the project to ready the hyenas, their space, and associated content. The hyenas themselves were spruced up by conservators in consultation with Mammals staff. The developers worked with a range of zoologists and botanists to ensure content accuracy. Meanwhile, staff in the Exhibition Replication shop researched the hyenas' native habitat and meticulously crafted every element to ensure accuracy, from the landform to the aloe plants. The crowning touch was the stunning background mural of the predawn sky by artist Aaron Delahanty. New enhancements added to the scene include a bat-eared fox hidden among the rocks, also collected on the Somaliland expedition, and a little dung beetle. To tell even more of the story with 21st-century tech, the interactive touchscreen lets visitors explore the diorama, its production, and the history behind the specimens.
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On January 26, 2016—almost 120 years after Akeley collected these specimens—the new diorama opened to the public, joining the 19 other dioramas in the Hall of Asian Mammals. Paul Brunsvold was unable to attend the kickoff, but Jaap highlighted his quarter century of unfailing support for those homely beasts in his remarks. If those hyenas could talk, they would surely thank Paul, Emily, and Jaap—and maybe even Carl. Because while he did shoot and mount them, he also immortalized them for generations of learners.