Snapshot of 1896 Expedition Life
From 1896 to 1909, Carl Akeley served as the Museum’s Chief Taxidermist (which evolved into “Taxidermist-in-Chief” around 1900, a title we’d advocate bringing back). Akeley was not only an important figure in Field Museum history, but his work also pushed people to look at the natural world in new ways—through taxidermy, sculpture, and even film.
Our Archives hold reports and letters from Akeley’s time at the Field, including expedition vouchers. These itemized receipts detail what he purchased while traveling on Museum business, and they range from mundane to more illuminating.
Akeley and Daniel Giraud Elliot, the Museum’s first zoology curator, embarked on an expedition to Somaliland in 1896. While they provided more formal reports of what they saw and what specimens they collected—205 skins representing 27 species, according to Elliot’s tally—their vouchers are a snapshot of daily life. In addition to the necessary meals, lodging, and transportation, Akeley required “2 khaki lounge coats” and Elliot purchased fishing tackle and “tags on [sic] parchment”—presumably, tags for recording future specimen data.
Akeley also wanted to bring a camera to document the 1896 Somaliland voyage—a piece of equipment that’s considered essential in fieldwork today. But Elliot worried that he had already overspent on expedition gear, so Akeley went ahead and bought a camera with his own money (purchased in London for 40 pounds). He ultimately took about 300 photographs in 1896, plus more on a 1905–06 expedition. These images gave an unprecedented look at not just wildlife in Africa, but also people and ways of life.
Back at the Museum in January 1904—still mounting specimens from the 1896 expedition—Akeley wrote to the Field’s president, Harlow Higinbotham. Akeley underscored the importance of taxidermy and illustrating animal habitats as true-to-life as possible: “I would recommend the engagement of a bird taxidermist, a preparator of fishes and reptiles, and, as soon as possible, an artist of recognized ability, to paint backgrounds and assist in a general way in raising the standard, in an artistic sense, of the exhibits.”
Akeley also noted that “much experimental work must be done.”
And experiment he did, both in taxidermy and in photography, constantly striving to close the gap between art and life. Though still photographs provided a rare record of live animals in their habitats, there was another frontier in visual documentation: moving pictures. When he couldn’t find a suitable motion picture camera to use out in the field—one that would allow for portability and quick movement—Akeley began working on his own designs as early as 1906. After several years of tinkering and trials out in the field, Akeley patented his own motion picture camera in 1915.
Nicknamed the “pancake camera” for its round shape, the Akeley camera could be panned and tilted to track an animal’s movements. Its shutter also admitted more light than existing cameras, making it possible to film in lower-light settings. Akeley’s films effectively captured nature in action—his goal in every medium, including sculpture and taxidermy. Constantly working to craft more realistic depictions of animals in their habitats, he created lasting museum displays that look as though they might just spring to life.
Mark Alvey, "The Cinema as Taxidermy: Carl Akeley and the Preservative Obsession," in Framework: The Journal of Cinema & Media,published by Drake Stutesman, 23-45. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007.
A note on collecting specimens:
At the turn of the 20th century, large animals were often collected for display, a practice we no longer follow. Carl Akeley went on expeditions at a time when many people didn’t have the chance to travel far from home. His goal in collecting specimens and bringing them back to the Museum was to give people a glimpse of nature—in places across the globe—that they otherwise would not experience.