Glimpses of Early Museums

The genesis of the habitat group

Bullock’s London Museum

Bullock’s London Museum, The Group of African Mammals

“With these materials and with specimens of the industry and art of the country, of its mineral resources and vegetable products, and of its natural history, comprising numerous specimens of birds collected by himself, he opened in May, 1824, an Exhibition at the Egyptian Hall entitled ‘Ancient and Modern Mexico.’”

Ancient and Modern Mexico is very interesting, for its modeled foreground and painted background, so arranged as to be viewed from a distance, foreshadow the cyclorama so popular in modern times. This exhibition, the outcome of a journey to Mexico, was installed at Egyptian Hall in 1824, or five years after Bullock had disposed of his “London Museum.”

One feature of Ancient Mexico, the gigantic Serpent Column that dominates the landscape, is something of a puzzle: As we know today, the Serpent Columns were the door jambs of the Temple of the Jaguars and supported the lintel on their upraised tails—why is this one reversed? Bullock visited Mexico in 1823 and made molds of the Calendar Stone and the Earth Goddess. Why did he figure the Serpent upside down? It is quite possible—even probable—that he was unable to visit Chichen Itza, knew the columns by hearsay only, and constructed them in what seemed to him the correct attitude.

But that Bullock exhibited actual casts of objects like the Earth Goddess and Calendar Stone that were not shown in the United States until sixty years later, speaks volumes for his energy.

The Group of African Mammals occupying the center of the hail is worthy of note as a bold attempt at a “habitat group.” Even today it is a courageous curator well provided with funds that would attempt to show the great mammals of Africa; but here is an exhibit, made by a private individual a century ago, years before Livingstone had even touched the edge of Darkest Africa, that included the largest known mammals.

More than this, some of the groups shown in Bullock’s Museum seem to have been provided with painted backgrounds and artificial foliage! As stated in the introduction to the Companion to Bullock’s Museum, published in 1813:

“Various animals, as the lofty Giraffe, the Lion, the Elephant, the Rhinocerous, etc., are exhibited as ranging in their native wilds and forests; whilst exact models, both in figure and colour, of the rarest and most luxuriant plants from every clime give all the appearance of reality; the whole being assisted with a panoramic effect of distance and appropriate scenery affording a beautiful illustration of the luxuriance of a torrid clime.”

This seems very much like a description of some recent habitat group, in fact, one can say little more of our Florida and Orizaba groups in the American Museum. And when we consider the handicap of building and especially of lighting under which these early museum men labored, we can but admire their courage and skill.

But even earlier than this, that universal genius, Charles Willson Peale, wrote: “. . . it is not only pleasing to see a sketch of a landscape, but by showing the nest, hollow, cave or a particular view of the country from which they [the animals] came, some instances of the habits may be given.” And this was written about 1800, while the first bird group was installed in the British Museum in 1877, and the first in the American Museum of Natural History not until ten years later.

So if “old-timers” like Akeley and myself are inclined to smile at some of the “discoveries” now and then brought forward by younger members at meetings of the Association of Museums, it is well to remember that some of our own discoveries were anticipated by museum men of other days, and to recall, for example, that when in 1885 Akeley and Critchley were called upon to mount the famous Jumbo, they used practically the same method that was employed by French taxidermists in mounting the elephant that died at the Jardin du Roi about one hundred years before. No wonder that after due consideration, Solomon again wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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