The iconic Fénykövi elephant, the centerpiece of the National Museum of Natural History rotunda since 1959, received an update last week in the form of a new interpretive platform. Like the Barosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History and Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum, this African bush elephant is the first object most NMNH visitors see upon entering. With its ears forward and its trunk raised, the elephant stands over 13 feet tall—larger than any elephant known to be living today. But in spite of its inspiring presence as the symbol of the museum, this elephant has a problematic history that NMNH has long struggled to interpret.
Hungarian-born Josef J. Fénykövi shot the elephant in Angola in 1955. Fénykövi owned a ranch in the west African nation (at the time a Portuguese colony), where he spent several months each year hunting wildlife. After discovering the existence of an unusually large bull elephant in 1954, Fénykövi returned the following year equipped to track and kill what was thought to be the biggest land animal on the planet. Fénykövi and his team of guides located the giant elephant on November 13th, and eventually downed it after a full-day chase*. A truck filled with salt was required to keep the hide fresh during the hundred-mile journey from the kill site to the nearest train station in Kuito. Rather than keep the trophy for himself, Fénykövi decided to donate the animal to a museum. He offered it to the London Natural History Museum first, but the process was taking too long for his taste so he gave the elephant to the Smithsonian, instead. Later, an old-fashioned slug from a flintlock pistol found embedded in the elephant’s leg provided reason to believe the animal had been nearly 100 years old when Fénykövi killed it.
*Fénykövi’s account gives the impression that the guides did most of the work. They tracked the elephant’s prints and spoor on foot while Fénykövi followed in a jeep, and a man named Mario fired the shots that actually finished off the animal.
The acquisition and subsequent exhibition of the Fénykövi elephant at NMNH gives us a great deal to unpack. The collection of animals for public display has fallen sharply out of favor over the past century. In the late 1800s, little worlds behind glass populated by taxidermy animals provided the increasingly urban public a window into the natural world they felt they had left behind. But even in Fénykövi’s day, popular opinion was beginning to turn against the practice. For most, this aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the unpleasantness of being confronted with a dead animal. Some scholars rightly call attention to the imperialism and exoticism inherent in collecting animals from far-flung lands. This criticism is especially apt for Fénykövi—his story contains more than a whiff of imperialist entitlement.
The fact that the elephant was killed as a trophy complicates matters still further. It’s one thing for a museum to display an animal that was sacrificed for science—to better understand its biology or to contribute to a record of biodiversity. Displaying a trophy is quite another. While a typical museum taxidermy display represents the life of an animal, a trophy mount celebrates that animal’s death. As Poliquin explains, “trophies arouse negative reactions not simply because they are evidence that a human killed an animal…they are evidence of a human’s desire to kill an animal” (Poliquin 2010, 152). Indeed, it is arguably impossible to fully separate a trophy mount from the narrative of the creature’s demise.
For Fénykövi, the meaning of the elephant is obvious. It represented a specific, triumphant event in his life, an attempt to communicate something about himself through the death of animal. NMNH staff have faced the much greater challenge of interpreting Fénykövi’s trophy for the millions of visitors that enter the rotunda every year. For 56 years, they have struggled to present this animal, selfishly killed by a wealthy colonial, in a way that matched the museum’s conservation-oriented mission.
The elephant’s original context unfortunately left something to be desired. The traditional, circular pedestal in the center of the NMNH rotunda did not effectively distance the specimen from it’s origin as a trophy, and the museum was occasionally criticized for complicity with big-game hunting and the colonial agenda. Nevertheless, the elephant did eventually earn an identity as a symbol for the museum, largely separate from the man who killed it. Credit for this accomplishment goes to William Brown and Norman Deaton, who prepared and mounted the hide over sixteen months. Brown and Deaton managed to imbue this dead skin over a wood-and-plaster frame with an astonishing amount of life and character. The elephant holds court in the four-story rotunda, exuding confidence and power over its domain. It’s an unforgettable sight, and it almost makes one forget that this animal is only there because it lost a fight.
Still, it was clear by the 1990s that while the elephant was there to stay, it needed to be more thoughtfully contextualized. In 1999, NMNH replaced the old pedestal with a large, open diorama of the Angolan savanna, which brought the elephant three feet higher off the ground. The project was completed entirely by in-house staff, and was funded in part by a donation from Kenneth Behring (a big-game hunter, among other things). In the revised display, the elephant was the focal point of a story that encompassed every department at the museum. A jackal and an assortment of birds (a lilac-breasted roller, a carmine bee eater, and a white-backed vulture) joined the elephant on the platform, while Angolan grasses and trees completed the scene. Ants, flies, and dung beetles (pushing dung balls cast from examples collected at the National Zoo) abounded. A tin can implied to have been tied to a tree by a local herder represented Anthropology, and bones of the extinct proboscidian Palaeoloxodon recki covered Paleobiology. In short, this display elegantly introduced visitors to everything the museum has to offer, while reinforcing the breadth and significance of natural history collections.
The elephant’s platform has now been rebuilt once again. The elephant stands at the same height and at the same angle, but the footprint of the base has been cut back significantly. The savanna diorama is gone, replaced with a straight-edged marble pedestal. Light and dark marble stripes reflect the rotunda’s classic architecture, particularly the columns in front of each of the main halls. The compass rose on the rotunda floor, hidden since the elephant was first installed in 1959, is visible once again. It grounds the elephant display nicely, especially when viewed from the second floor. Finally, the new elephant platform now includes an information desk. It seems sensible to incorporate a bit of functionality into the display, and fortunately this addition does not noticeably detract from exhibit’s overall aesthetics.
The interdisciplinary interpretation has been removed*, replaced by displays that focus on elephant behavior and the omnipresent threat of poaching. In fact, the only objects on display besides the elephant itself are three ivory sculptures that were seized by customs. The inclusion of these sculptures is a little strange, since it reinforces that ivory products are actually very pretty. Hopefully the adjacent message that elephant poaching has tripled since 1998—and that an elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes—will be enough to convince visitors that it isn’t worth it.
*The one exception is a graphic that places modern elephants in their evolutionary and temporal context, featuring nearly photo-real artwork by Mauricio Anton.
To its credit, the new display banishes Fénykövi from the elephant’s story—I didn’t see his name mentioned once. While I don’t think it’s possible (or more to the point, appropriate) to completely erase this specimen’s problematic history, it’s encouraging that it has taken on a second life as a cherished ambassador for its threatened species. I can think of no better outcome for an animal that was killed as a trophy.
What do you think of the new display? Which version do you like best?
Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.
Love, S. (1997). Curators as Agents of Change: An Insect Zoo for the Nineties. Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Poliquin, R. (2010). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Smithsonian Institution. (2010). Explore Our Collections: Fénykövi Elephant. http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html