How to Be a Stuffed Animal, on the early days of the American Museum of Natural History, high class taxidermy in America, and obsession with fake nature and fake realness.
An invitation to lead or join an expedition for the museum, thus cashing in the most desirable tag in the hunting world, was indeed flattering. The mammologist Roy Chapman Andrews, famous for his “intensive exploration” methods and, from 1934, director of the museum, was fond of reminding people that “thousands of men have applied for places on my own expeditions, saying that they are ‘good outdoor men’ but have no special training. They would be expensive luxuries. Every…man must do either a technical or a scientific job.” Newly bestowed with the gravitas of “specialists,” armed with large-bore guns made by Holland & Holland and permits obtained for them by the museum, outfitted in Abercrombie Camp, the blue bloods of American capitalism set off into the wilderness to atone for their fortunes (which had played a prominent part in endangering it) and find their inner Crocketts and Boones.
Presiding over the whole enterprise was the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, an ardent supporter of the museum until his death in 1919, and a major donor of specimens, including the large cow elephant displayed in “The Alarm” (Kermit, his son, shot the calf). Roosevelt self-consciously positioned himself in the tradition of Daniel Boone, the buckskin-clad hunter and frontiersman who helped settle Kentucky in the late eighteenth century, revering him as an indigenous (white) American who, like Davy Crockett, thrived in a free, egalitarian wilderness. These were “nature’s noblemen,” rugged libertarians and premier symbols of democratic manhood. Their descendants were the guides who accompanied the president—or general or railroad baron—and taught him the codes of the wilderness. Sharing a blanket with one of these guides was to enter an unrestrained, “uncontaminated” state where the social order was leveled. Roosevelt seriously believed that “no Americans of the outdoor type, fond of nature and the habitants of the wilds, will ever develop Bolshevik tendencies.” The wilderness experience was offered as a direct allegory of social peace, the guarantee of a negotiated tranquility. No matter that behind their backs the guides often mocked the men of fortune as “tenderfoots” or “dudes,” or that they had to defer to them when it came to bagging a trophy. There was equality in theory. In practice, it was a “teddy-bear patriarchy” in which droit du seigneur prevailed.