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How an Artist Saved the Mountain Gorilla

Location

Retracing the Footsteps of Carl Akeley

Quick Facts

Artist: 
Stephen Quinn
Flag Co-bearers: 
Jeffrey Whiting
Purpose: 
To retrace the steps of the American Museum of Natural History icon, Carl Akeley; to tell the unique story of how an artist catalyzed Africa's first national park; and to highlight and support current conservation work being done to save the Mountain Gorilla.
Time/Location: 
November, 2010 - Dem. Rep.of Congo & Rwanda, Kenya
Departure Date: 
3 years 43 weeks ago

Stephen C. Quinn, an award-winning artist and senior project manager at the American Museum of Natural History, will be embarking on a rare journey later this month to study the endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The New Jersey native will retrace the footsteps of Carl Akeley’s famous expedition nearly a century ago, which ended in the heroic explorer’s death.  

Joining Quinn will be Jeffrey Whiting, founder and president of Artists for Conservation, the non-profit organization spearheading the expedition. Using a 90-year-old painting created by Akeley's expedition team member William R. Leigh as a "GPS" or treasure map to find the exact location that inspired Akeley’s famous diorama of the mountain gorilla, which is still on display today at the American Museum of Natural History. Quinn aims to create a painting from the same precise vantage point, depicting what that site and vista looks like today.

It is estimated there are only 740 mountain gorillas left in the world. Dr. Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project, which is dedicated to the preservation of the species, will accompany Quinn and Whiting on the expedition. The project is one of Artists for Conservation’s annual flag expeditions, which aim to combine modern day science with art to raise awareness for critical conservation work.

“Akeley’s efforts were instrumental in having this area conserved as Africa’s first national park nearly a century ago,” said Whiting. “That’s art in action if there ever was. Artists have always been on the forefront of conservation.”

Quinn and Whiting will be posting live updates from the field on the Artists for Conservation website throughout the trek. The expedition was made possible in part by the American Museum of Natural History, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project, the Houston Zoo and the University of California Davis. The expedition has also been endorsed as an official expedition by the world renowned Explorer’s Club, to which Quinn was recently inducted. Anyone wanting to support the expedition can make a donation by becoming a friend of Artists for Conservation.

On February 9, 2010, Quinn gave a public lecture about the expedition at the American Museum of Natural History, where it was very well received with a nearly full-house. Here is a video excerpt of that lecture, courtesy of AMNH with AFC footage from the field:

 

  • To revisit the original site of the American Museum of Natural History's Mountain Gorilla diorama with the goal to record, through various artistic media, the human impact and ecological changes that have occurred since Carl Akeley first visited the site in 1921 and 1926. Using the diorama in NY as a litmus test to monitor change in the field, the actual site, as it appears today, will be documented in art, photography, video and journal.
  • To tell the story of how art (an artist and his diorama) shaped international conservation policy and led to the creation of Africa's first national park and the preservation of the Mountain Gorilla into the future.
  • To highlight the conservation work being done now to ensure the survival of the endangered resident Mountain Gorillas, with special focus on the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project (MGVP) and  the University of California Davis.
  • To prepare for a public exhibit within the American Museum of Natural History featuring work resulting from the expedition and highlighting the historical nature of the museum diorama and its role in preservation efforts on behalf of the Mountain Gorillas.
  • To support the conservation work of MGVP/One Health including greater awareness of the plight of the Mountain Gorilla as a species,   greater awareness of the MGVP/One Health program, eco-tourism, and contributions to MGVP fundraising efforts. 

This 11th AFC Flag Expedition will revisit the actual site depicted in the American Museum of Natural History's Mountain Gorilla diorama in the Virunga volcanoes in Africa with the intent of documenting the changes that have occurred in the diorama and its painted background scene, as well as the surrounding region, since Akeley's visit to first document the site in 1921 and 1926 in preparation for the creation of this famous diorama in N.Y. The Mountain Gorilla diorama was based on the field research of noted African explorer, sculptor, taxidermist, and naturalist, Carl Akeley. This is where the noted researchers George Schaller and Diane Fossey did their definitive research on Mountain Gorillas.

This expedition will not only bring attention to the endangered Mountain Gorillas themselves and their threatened habitat, but will also refocus attention on the museum which played an early leading role in African wildlife conservation and its support of the creation of the very first national park in all of Africa, assuring the survival of the Mountain Gorilla into the present. 

The expedition, involving a partnership with AMNH, the Houston Zoo, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project, and UC Davis, will also clearly illustrate the role and power of art (a diorama) as a catalyst for the creation of Africa's first national park and as such, give testament to the mission of the Artists for Conservation Foundation.

The dioramas featured in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in NY depict actual locations in Africa visited in the early 1900s by teams of artists and scientists who gathered the required references and specimens in the field to recreate a specific site back in New York at the museum. These dioramas were utilized, at the time they were created, to generate concern for vanishing African wildlife. The most famous diorama among these, the Mountain Gorilla diorama, was collected by noted African explorer, sculptor, taxidermist, and naturalist, Carl Akeley.

During Steve's Flag Expedition he will revisit the actual site of the museum's Mountain Gorilla diorama in the Virunga volcanoes in Africa with the intent of documenting the changes that have occurred in the diorama and its painted background scene, as well as in the surrounding region, since Akeley's visit to first document the site in 1921 and 1926 in preparation for the creation of this famous diorama in N.Y.C.

In 1925, Carl Akeley, inspired by his encounters with the Mountain Gorillas in the Virungas, played a critical role in the creation of the sanctuary that is the Mountain Gorilla's best hope for survival into the future and was Africa's very first national park. This sanctuary still exists today, spanning three countries (200 sq. miles), and is where both George Schaller and Diane Fossey did their definitive research on Mountain Gorillas. This association of a great work of art, Akeley's diorama, with the creation of a sanctuary that would ensure the preservation of a vulnerable species, the Mountain Gorilla, highlights the mission of the American Museum of Natural History, the Artists for Conservation Foundation and the Houston Zoo.

Steve came very close to the site in 1986 during a visit to Rwanda while leading an AMNH Discovery Tour and knows that both deforestation and volcanic activity have altered the scene currently on view in the diorama.  Local agriculture has encroached on the forest depicted in the diorama background painting and one of the steaming volcanoes depicted in the original painting, Nyrongongo, has since erupted and is now a caldera rather than a volcano. Poaching has also had its impact on the wildlife, as during his visit he observed a silverback with a missing hand – reportedly severed by a cable snare set by a poacher within the park. 

This expedition will not only bring attention to the endangered Mountain Gorillas themselves and their threatened habitat, but will also refocus attention on the museum which played an early leading role in African wildlife conservation and its support of the creation of the very FIRST NATIONAL PARK in all of Africa, assuring the survival of the Mountain Gorilla into the present. In a very real way the Mountain Gorilla is Carl Akeley's (an artist) living legacy.

The expedition will also clearly illustrate the role and power of art (a diorama) as a catylist for the creation of Africa's first national park and as such, give testament to the mission of the Artists for Conservation Foundation – “the support of wildlife and habitat conservation, biodiversity, sustainability and environmental education through art that celebrates our natural heritage”.

An ecological comparison, using the museum diorama (a highly accurate work of art) as the litmus test to compare the past environment with the present, will be unique and propel the museum, AFC, and the expedition sponsors into the conservation frontline.

Steve's goals are to visit the exact site of the diorama and document it thoroughly. He intends to do numerous field sketches of the animals and their surroundings, making a special point of creating a panoramic plein air painting from the very site where the original expedition artist (William R. Leigh) made his historic panoramic color field sketches during the 1926 expedition. Those sketches were used in the creation of the original diorama background painting.  Steve's sketches will visually capture the changes that have taken place in the scene over the years since. 

He will also visit and thoroughly document Akeley's gravesite.  He died on location in 1926, due to exhaustion, malaria, and dysentery, while collecting final references for the diorama and is buried at the location. 

With journal, photographs, video, field sketches and paintings, Steve hopes to compare Akeley's original notes and journal with his observations and the conditions today. This journal will be of special interest to the museum, AFC and the expedition sponsors since it will highlight not only the current status of the animals and their habitat, but also the successful efforts of an artist (Carl Akeley) to preserve and protect vanishing wildlife through his creation of the gorilla diorama and his campaigning for their protection in the wild.

Steve will also prepare for a public exhibit within the American Museum of Natural History featuring work resulting from the expedition and highlighting the historical nature of the museum diorama and its role in preservation efforts on behalf of the Mountain Gorillas.

 

A special thank you to the following organizations supporting this expedition:

American Museum of Natural History

 

Houston Zoo

Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project
The Heliconia Press

 

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