Mr. Akeley’s Movie Camera

Category: Exhibitions

Exhibition Summary

Included with Basic admission

Closes Mar 17, 2019

All ages

Included with Basic admission

Closes Mar 17, 2019

All ages

About the Exhibit

See how taxidermist and inventor Carl Akeley captured the natural world.

Carl Akeley—best known as “the father of modern taxidermy” and for works like the fighting African elephants in our main hall—was also a naturalist, sculptor, writer, and inventor. Recently, we added to our collections one of his most versatile inventions: the Akeley Motion Picture Camera.

From 1896 to 1909, Akeley was the Field’s Chief Taxidermist. He joined the Museum’s first two expeditions to Africa, studying animals in their natural habitats and bringing back specimens for educational display. Looking for a way to capture the natural world in motion, in 1915 he invented a portable movie camera to use on expeditions.

Learn how this device—along with Akeley's true-to-life museum displays—transformed how people saw nature.

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Carl Akeley used the portable motion picture camera he invented to more easily capture footage of the natural world. 

Image 260071, American Museum of Natural History

The Akeley camera was used during the Field Museum’s 1928–29 Crane Pacific expedition to capture wildlife footage. Here, an iguana gets its close-up.

From the field to the movies

In 1921, Akeley used his camera in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo to capture the first-ever motion pictures of gorillas in the wild. In the early 20th century, numerous expeditions set out with an Akeley camera in tow, including an expedition to Flores Island, Malaysia, where some of the earliest footage of Komodo Dragons was recorded.

Scientists and explorers used the camera to share their discoveries with the world, and because of its light weight and mobility, the United States Army used it during World War I. Hollywood, too, benefited from its design. Akeley cameras were used to film scenes for the documentary Nanook of the North (1922) in the Arctic and the war movie Wings (1927)—winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture—along with many others filmed across the globe.

On scientific expeditions, journalistic endeavors, and Hollywood location shoots, Carl Akeley’s motion picture camera was a camera of choice in the early 20th century.

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