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Kingdom under Glass

1 rating: 5.0
A biography of Carl Akeley
1 review about Kingdom under Glass

Exciting and beautifully written

  • Dec 4, 2010
Kingdom under Glass is the splendid story of a man and his obsession, a genius who survived incredible hardships while collecting animals to show the majesty, the beauty, the variety of East Africa's dwindling wildlife. In order to appreciate Carl Akeley's contribution to science as the premier taxidermist who preserved animals as an art form one has to see his African panoramas in the Museum of Natural History in New York City. This is a highly unusual biography about a highly unusual man who began stuffing birds' skins for the milliner's trade as a boy. One wonders, why? Why would anyone want to do that? 200,000 birds from pheasants to sparrows were slain a year to provide the millinery trade with hat decorations. But Carl had his calling, his life's work running in his veins: to make a mounted animal or bird absolutely life-like and scientifically accurate, and to put them into an authentic environment.

Luckily the young Carl moved on to work as taxidermist at Ward's National Science Establishment in Rochester, NY. His first huge assignment was mounting a bull elephant named Jumbo, the pride of P.T. Barnum. Jumbo, incredibly, was hit by a train when the Show was moving to another location. Barnum asked Akeley if he couldn't stretch the skin a bit to make Jumbo even larger than he actually had been. Carl said he could and even dead the gigantic Jumbo was the circus' main attraction.

But Akeley's motive was the preservation of something beautiful, presenting the animal in a way that would be totally natural, not the usually stuffing of a creature with sawdust, a result which was never natural, never convincing. The taxidermist had to look at the animal beneath the skin, the muscles, the sinews, the vital parts of the animal which had previously been ignored. The animal had to be fleshed out so convincingly that it appeared to be living. The mounting of specimens at this level could be said to be sculpture as well as an incomparable teaching tool. Akeley spent years perfecting his art, trying plaster, clay and papier mache.

Akeley and his young wife Mickie went to Africa many times to acquire specimens for the American Museum's African Hall. He was once attacked by a leopard which the 5'5" 135 pound Akeley managed to kill with his bare hands after being severely bitten. A bull elephant charged Akeley and threw him between its tusks and Akeley barely survived from his injuries. Danger lurked everywhere and on one safari the group nearly died for lack of water. A passing caravan finally appeared and gave them filthy dripping skins containing sour goat's milk, which at least was wet and saved their lives. An elephant killed had to be skinned on the spot, the massive hide and bones being sent back to Nairobi for shipment to New York. Skinning an animal as huge as an African elephant required incredible effort and during one operation a chain of porters had to provide water from a distant spring, poured from bucket to bucket, porter to porter, salt being added to each bucket, until the salty water could be poured on the elephant's hide to keep it from drying out and decaying.

A huge contrast to Akeley's rather humble hands-on style of living on a safari, was that of ex-president Teddy Roosevelt. who was collecting animals for the Smithsonian and hired some 260 porters who carried along 60 pounds of leather covered books, linen table napkins, polished cutlery and fine china so the group could dine in one of the thirteen tents served by valets wearing white gloves. It really boggles the mind, however TR was no sissy.

When the Akeleys returned to New York City they brought along a small monkey that Mickie had captured in Africa and was extremely fond of. With no children, the monkey, JT jr. became Mickie's child. JT would careen around on the drapes, tearing them down, stripped off hunks of wallpaper and managed to destroy anything he could get his little grasping hands on. And he could open bottles and drawers with ease. In short he created havoc with the posh apartment and the place even smelled of monkey. Carl stayed away as much as he could. The ungrateful little monkey bit his mistress in the ankle and she almost had to have the leg amputated when a raging infection set in. Mickie was confined to bed for three months but still the monkey ruled the roost. Finally when he had bitten Mickie for the third time, Carl took him to a zoo. But that was the end of the marriage as Mickie left a Dear John letter on the bed and disappeared. As author Kirk says,Akeley had lost his muse.

It was Carl Akeley's destiny that he should die in Africa, it was in the cards, his death was preordained. It happened in the Belgian Congo, in gorilla country high in the frigid mountains above Lake Kivu. in 1926. At his side were his second wife, Mary, and the incomparably talented artist who painted the backgrounds of the dioramas in the African Hall, William R. Leigh. Mr. Leigh had said to Akeley "[The African Hall ] will be a page of natural history that will survive, perhaps, after much of this animal life has been wiped out- a record of something which never can be again- a document of inestimable value."

Carl Akeley was a taxidermist, a biologist, a conservationist, an artist, a photographer and an inventor. Biographer Jay Kirk brings Akeley to life in this very rich portrait. The biography is stunning and fascinating and peals away the layers of Akeley's psyche to find the real man and understand his genius, understand his vision. Don't miss it!

Exciting and beautrifully written

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Kingdom under Glass
Carl Akeley
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