How Taxidermists Shaped
America’s Natural History Museums
and Saved Endangered Species
University of Chicago Press
Some of the first moving images of endangered species in the wild were shot by Carl Akeley with his “pancake camera.”
It may be surprising to us now, but the taxidermists who filled the museums, zoos, and aquaria of the twentieth century were also among the first to become aware of the devastating effects of careless human interaction with the natural world. Witnessing firsthand the decimation caused by hide-hunters, commercial feather collectors, whalers, big game hunters, and poachers, these museum men recognized the existential threat to critically endangered species and the urgent need to protect them. The compelling exhibits they created, as well as the field work, popular writing, and lobbying they undertook, established a vital leadership role in the early conservation movement for American museums, a role that persists to this day.
Through their individual research expeditions and collective efforts to arouse demand for environmental protections, this remarkable cohort, including William T. Hornaday, Carl Akeley, and their lesser known colleagues Frederic A. Lucas, Charles H. Townsend, and Frederic S. Webster, created our popular understanding of the animal world and its fragile habitats. For generations of museum visitors, they turned the glass of an exhibition case into a window on nature—and a mirror in which to reflect on our responsibility for its conservation.