Back to Work at the American Museum of Natural History

Stephen Quinn
December 14, 2010 share
Artists for Conservation

Well, today is my first day back to work since returning home from Africa. My commute from New Jersey to New York was horrific! It took me two hours to get in to the museum. Not quite as bad as the traffic going in and out of Nairobi. At least in New York the roads have well marked lanes (not that anyone stays in them) and at least we drive on the right side of the road!

Arriving at the museum, I've decided I will take a slight detour, away from my usual route directly to the exhibit studio, and walk through the Akeley Hall of African Mammals on my way to my desk.

It's early so the museum is closed and quiet. No visitors have arrived yet so the place looks like the still set for "Night at the Museum". By the way, everything you see in that film is true. You REALLY don't want to get caught working late here at AMNH.

I walk down the long corridor approaching the African Hall, my heels clicking as I go. On turning into the hall it's centerpiece arrests my attention. I've seen that central group of African Elephants in the hall thousands of times and, still, they stop me in my tracks. They are elevated on a great pedestal in the center of the hall and rightfully so. They are magnificent, powerful, and even frightening to a small child. I remember as a youngster, seeing them for the first time. To me then, they were REAL elephants! I didn't understand or appreciate Carl Akeley's wonderful sculptural art or the stories of his dedicated efforts in recreating Africa here in New York. I only saw African Elephants and at my young age (I was 4 when I first saw them), this was the closest I had ever come to seeing or experiencing them. I have based all my subsequent encounters on that first experience and, though a living, moving African Elephant in the wild is extraordinary to behold, still that early encounter was powerful and life-altering. Throughout the rest of my growing years it was here to the museum that I would come to revel among the museum's wonders. It was this place that validated my own passions as a young naturalist and nature artist. Here, in the museum's grand rotundas and cathedral like halls, all of nature was held up and displayed as the priceless wonders that, in time, my young mind would come to value in the same way. I fell in love with the place and when in 1974, after graduating from art school, I was able to land a job in the exhibits studio, I never looked back.

Turning to the left as I enter the hall, I stopped before Akeley's Mountain Gorilla diorama, the recreation of the place I had just left in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The exhibit is so powerful, even if you have never been there. It is so true, so accurate, so authentic that to stand before it is to be there. Every botanical specimen is perfectly modeled. The Hagenia trees, the Hypericum trees, the Wild Celery that the gorillas love to eat. Everything is here. Even the Ruwenzori Blackberry that Jeff and I were feasting on up on Mikeno. And Akeley's mounted specimens. Each of Akeley's mounted specimens attempts to capture the personal character of the animal depicted. They are grand animal sculpture. Akeley gave each a name, something he never did for any of his other taxidermy mounts, like Clarence the young male in the foreground. Gazing at them he, himself, likely recalled the harsh and violent moments of collecting them as part of his mission. A mission which caused him to pause and state "It took all my scientific ardor to keep from feeling like a murderer". No doubt, it was this realization and response to a creature so much like ourselves, that drove Akeley to use his position at the museum as a soapbox to campaign for the protection of the Mountain Gorilla and successfully convince King Albert of the Belgium Congo to set aside the 200 square miles that would become Africa's first national park. This is where George Schaller did his definitive work on Mountain Gorillas, and where Diane Fossey did all her great work as well. This is where the dedicated National Park Rangers of DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda and the devoted veterinarians of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project labor against danger and great odds to fight and save the last of these magnificent creatures. As George Schaller has stated" The Mountain Gorilla is Carl Akeley's living monument and those that follow his lead are his great legacy".

I feel an overwhelming sense of Deja Vu. The attempts of the wonderful artists that traveled with Akeley and brought this piece of Africa back are successful. When one stands before this exhibit, one is filled with the same sense of wonder and awe at the granduer of this place and these wonderful animals that inhabit it as when one is there. But, I note, there is something missing here that the personal encounter includes. Where are the refugee camps that I saw in the valley below? Where are the denuded hillsides stripped of forest from charcoal production. Where is the patchwork of crops within the boundaries of the national park or the cell tower now at stage center down below on the open plain. Akeley and his remarkable team of artists have, as their goal, given us an accurate view of Africa as they encountered it. Now we MUST see it as we have altered it and, for that matter, nearly every other wilderness area across the planet. And that, is the great value of these exhibits. They are windows out onto other worlds, other nations of living things that we have an encountability and responsibility for.  Places we may never visit, but through the talents of very disiplined artists like Carl Akeley, have been transplanted here for us to appreciate, ponder, and learn from. Will we heed the lessons that they teach. Will they only serve as reminders of a paradise lost or will we, as a global species, aware of our power to meet the greatest of challenges that face us and our future generations and all life we share the planet with, grasp the message of habitat loss that they tell and act. We shall see. 

I suppose I should get upstairs to my desk and get back to work. Lot's of mail to open and tons of email to catch up on. My next project is restoring the great dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals - can't wait to get into it!. But before I go, please allow me one last expression of thanks to the Artists for Conservation Foundation and all the supporting organizations for making my Flag Expedition possible. It was a life-changing experience for me. Now the real work begins. Now we, as AFC artists, need to convey the beauty and splendor of nature in such a way to assure it's protection and preservation for the future. To convey in our work, a sense of our value and passion for the subjects we depict. And support, with our work, the honorable and noble efforts of those around the world working to preserve our natural heritage, and, in so doing, our own species. It is a good thing we do - a very good thing to be a part of. Regardless of how overwhelming or hopeless it may seem to us at times. We must persevere. The world is still a place filled with beauty and wonder and it is a life well-spent to be a part of preserving it for the future.

With Sincere Appreciation and Best Regards for the Holidays, Steve Quinn

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