Carl Akeley

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Carl Akeley
Carl Akeley 37036r.jpg
Carl Akeley
Born May 19, 1864
Clarendon, New York, US
Died November 18, 1926 (aged 62)
Mt. Mikeno, Belgian Congo
Fields Taxidermy
Institutions Milwaukee Public Museum, Field Museum of Natural History, American Museum of Natural History
Notable awards John Scott Medal (1916)

Carl Ethan Akeley (May 19, 1864 – November 18, 1926) was a taxidermist, sculptor, biologist, conservationist, inventor, and nature photographer, noted for his contributions to American museums, most notably to the Field Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. He is considered the father of modern taxidermy.[1] He was the founder of the AMNH Exhibitions Lab, the interdisciplinary department that fuses scientific research with immersive design.


"Muskrat Group", one of Akeley's early works for the Milwaukee Public Museum

He was born in Clarendon, New York, and grew up on a farm, attending school for only three years. He learned taxidermy from David Bruce in Brockport, New York, and then entered an apprenticeship in taxidermy at Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. In 1886 Akeley moved on to the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he created the world's first complete museum habitat diorama in 1890. Akeley remained in Milwaukee for eight years, refining "model" techniques used in taxidermy.[2] At the Milwaukee Public Museum, his early work consisted of animals found in Wisconsin prairies and woodlands. One of these was a diorama of a muskrat group, which was one of the first to show animals in a naturalistic habitat.[3] In addition, he also created historical reindeer and orangutan exhibits. While working at the Milwaukee Public Museum and later, at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, he developed his innovative taxidermy techniques, notably the creation of lightweight, hollow, but sturdy mannequins on which to mount the animals' skins.[4] He was also a prolific inventor, perfecting a "cement gun" to repair the crumbling facade of the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago (the old Palace of Fine Arts from the World's Columbian Exposition.[5] He is today known as the inventor of shotcrete, or "gunite" as he termed it at the time.[6] There is no evidence that Akeley ever used sprayable concrete in his taxidermy work, as is sometimes suggested. Akeley also invented a highly mobile motion picture camera for capturing wildlife, started a company to manufacture it, and patented it in 1915. The Akeley "pancake" camera (so-called because it was round) was soon adopted by the War Department for use in World War I, primarily for aerial use, and later by newsreel companies, and Hollywood studios, primarily for aerial footage and action scenes.[7] F. Trubee Davison covered these and other Akeley inventions in a special issue of Natural History magazine[8]

Akeley specialized in African mammals, particularly the gorilla and the elephant. As a taxidermist, he improved on techniques of fitting the skin over a carefully prepared and sculpted form of the animal's body, producing very lifelike specimens, with consideration of musculature, wrinkles, and veins. He also displayed the specimens in groups in a natural setting. Many animals that he preserved he had personally collected.

Carl Akeley also helped mount P.T. Barnum's Jumbo after he was killed in a rail road accident.

African Expeditions[edit]

"The Old Man of Mikeno", bronze Bust of a Mountain Gorilla by Carl Akeley.

In 1909 Akeley accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on a year-long expedition in Africa funded by the Smithsonian Institution and began working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where his efforts can still be seen in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. Akeley joined the Explorers Club in 1912, having been sponsored by three of the Club's seven Charter Members: Frank Chapman, Henry Collins Walsh, and Marshall Saville. For qualifying, Akeley wrote only, "Explorations in Somaliland and British East Africa." He became the Club's sixth president serving from 1917–1918.

In 1921, eager to learn about gorillas to determine if killing them for museum dioramas was justified, Akeley led an expedition to Mt. Mikeno in the Virunga Mountains at the edge of the then Belgian Congo. At that time, gorillas were quite exotic, with very few even in zoos, and collecting such animals for educational museum exhibitions was not uncommon. In the process of “collecting” several mountain gorillas, Akeley’s attitude was fundamentally changed and for the remainder of his life he worked for the establishment of a gorilla preserve in the Virungas. In 1925, greatly influenced by Akeley, King Albert I of Belgium established the Albert National Park, (since renamed Virunga National Park). It was Africa's first national park. Opposed to hunting them for sport or trophies, he remained an advocate of collection for scientific and educational purposes.[9] One of the members of his 1921 expedition was six-year-old Alice Hastings Bradley, who later wrote science fiction under the name James Tiptree, Jr..

He improved the motion picture camera for working in nature. Akeley also wrote several books, including stories for children, and an autobiography In Brightest Africa (1920). He was awarded more than 30 patents for his inventions.

Akeley began his fifth journey to the Congo with the start of the dry season in late 1926. He died on November 18 of fever and was buried in Africa, just miles from where he encountered his first gorilla, the “Old Man of Mikeno.”

His wife, Mary Jobe Akeley, married him two years before he died. He had previously been married to Delia J. Akeley (1875–1970) for nearly 20 years. Delia Akeley accompanied him on two of his biggest and most productive safaris to Africa in 1905 and again in 1909. Delia later returned to Africa twice under the auspices of the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Sciences. She organized and led both trips and lived for several months in the Ituri Forest with Pygmies.

The World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships awards gold medallions that bear Carl Akeley’s likeness—based on a photograph he had taken at Stein Photography in Milwaukee—to its “Best in World” winners. There is also a Carl Akeley Award for the most artistic mount at the World Show. The medallions were sculpted by Floyd Easterman of the Milwaukee Public Museum. The Akeley Hall of African Mammals of the American Museum of Natural History is named for him.[10]

The Lion-Hunters (detail) (Field Museum, Chicago) Bronze sculpture by Carl Akeley.[11]
Gorilla diorama is one of Akeley's dioramas, which is on display in the American Museum of Natural History

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Keir Brooks Sterling. Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists. pp. 12–13. Retrieved 2008-01-21. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Madden, Dave. The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. Macmillan. pp. 89–91. ISBN 9781429987622. 
  4. ^ Kirk, Jay (2010). Kingdom Under Glass. Henry Holt. ISBN 978-0-8050-9282-0. 
  5. ^ Teichert, Pietro (Summer 2002). "Carl Akeley--a tribute to the founder of Shotcrete" (PDF). Shotcrete: 10–12. Retrieved April 13, 2014. 
  6. ^ Allentown Equipment, History of Gunite/Shotcrete (URL accessed March 25, 2006)
  7. ^ Alvey, Mark (Spring 2007). "The Cinema as Taxidermy: Carl Akeley and the Preservative Obsession". Framework 48 (1): 23–45. 
  8. ^ Davison, F. Trubee (March–April 1927). "Akeley, the inventor". Natural History. XXVII (2): 124–129. 
  9. ^ Milwaukee Public Museum Exhibit: Samson Remembered
  10. ^ American Museum of Nautral History: Akeley Hall of African Mammals
  11. ^ Akeley Statues, Field Museum

External links[edit]