My first museum experience was when I was a very young child at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. My parents took me, probably on an insufferably hot day in the middle of the summer. I played with starfish in tide pools and most likely had my picture taken in front of the giant elephant in the rotunda (but more about him later).
It’s unfortunate I don’t remember this experience at all. Honestly, I had to ask my mom to recount the experience to me. She tried describing things I saw, and I can’t recall any of it to save my life, but it must have had some sort of effect on me because I loved paleontology as a kid and wanted to be a marine biologist by age twelve. Seeing animals from around the world is an exercise in imagination and opens up new realms of biology and zoology and other –ologies we might never get to experience for lack of opportunity. Natural history museums bring the world a bit closer.
Some of the protagonists of these museums intrigue us more than others. They may be the biggest, or the smallest, or perhaps the strangest specimens on display. Some have mastered social media and interact with their visitors online. This post is an attempt to compile ten of the most famous museum animals in the world. To be fair, this is a very subjective list; there are several others that could arguably be included, but for the sake of brevity (this isn’t Buzzfeed, after all), here are my top ten in alphabetical order:
1. Anthropomorphic Taxidermy
The first isn’t a specific animal, but involves displaying taxidermy in human-like poses and situations. German taxidermist Hermann Ploucquet captivated crowds (and Queen Victoria) at the Great Exhibition of 1851 with his displays of dueling dormice and representations of Reinecke the Fox. Walter Potter (1835-1918) also created anthropomorphic taxidermy, creating a series of displays entitled The Original Death & Burial of Cock Robin, among others.
The practice isn’t in vogue today, but some museums hold small collections of anthropomorphic taxidermy.
2. Chi Chi
Chi Chi the panda was born in 1957 in Sichuan Province, China. Caught in 1958, Chi Chi was transferred from Beijing Zoo to Moscow to Germany to London within a year, where she settled in London Zoo. Though not the only panda in London at the time, Chi Chi became the most famous, inspiring Sir Peter Scott’s logo for the World Wildlife Fund. She was mourned nationwide when she died in 1972, and her remains are now housed in London’s Natural History Museum.
The Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 (also known as Custer’s Last Stand) is famous for its decisive slaughter of an entire cavalry regiment of the United States Army. General George Armstrong Custer led approximately 200 cavalry into battle against a combined force of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne peoples. The sole survivor of the US Army detachment, Comanche the horse, was solemnly retired and never ridden again. His remains are displayed in Kansas University’s Natural History Museum.
Dippy, the affectionate name for the Diplodocus cast skeleton that occupies the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum in London, was unearthed in 1898 in Wyoming. Subtle differences in skeletal structure confirmed it as a new species, and it was named Diplodocus carnegii after its owner, business tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who displayed the skeleton in his Pittsburgh museum. King Edward VII commissioned a cast of the skeleton for display in the Natural History Museum (then the British Museum), where Dippy made his debut in 1905.
Several other replicas of Diplodocus carnegii exist in museums in Germany, France, Russia, and elsewhere, and a statue of Dippy stands guard outside the Carnegie Institute and Library in Pittsburgh.
On 5 July 1996, Dolly the sheep was born at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. Though her appearance was anything but remarkable, her existence is what made her special: Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult stem cell.
Dolly lived a relatively normal life for a sheep with such groundbreaking beginnings despite being an international celebrity. She mated and produced six lambs, but died prematurely of sheep pulmonary adenomatosis (SPA) in 2003. Her remains are on display in the Connect Gallery, National Museums Scotland.
6. Fénykövi Elephant (Henry)
In 1955, Josef J. Fénykövi tracked an elephant with a foot span of three feet through the bush of Angola. The largest pachyderm ever killed by a human, the Fénykövi Elephant—otherwise known as Henry—is on display in the rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The two-ton hide has been on display in the Smithsonian since 1959.
The Akita specimen in the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno, Tokyo, Japan is not a large animal or a proclaimed war hero, but Hachikō’s love for and loyalty toward his master, Professor Hidesaburō Ueno, made him a celebrity. From 1924 to 1925, Hachikō greeted the professor at the Shibuya station each day after work. After Professor Ueno died of a brain hemorrhage at work in 1925, Hachikō continued to await his master’s return at the same time each day until he died at Shibuya station in 1935.
8. Horniman Walrus
At first glance, the Horniman Walrus does not appear as normal walruses should; its remains are overstuffed to the point that its hide has no folds typical of live walruses. Still, the Horniman Walrus is an iconic piece of the Horniman Museum’s collection. James Henry Hubbard first exhibited it in London’s Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886, and Frederick Horniman eventually purchased it and other Canadian specimens for display in his museum.
Horniman Walrus, like Dippy the Diplodocus, has its own Twitter account, though how it manages to type with flippers is beyond me. Perhaps it has museum staff take a dictation?
Captured by Sudanese hunters in French Sudan in 1865, Jumbo was sold to Germany, France, London and eventually P. T. Barnum in the United States for exhibition in Barnum & Bailey Circus. Jumbo performed in Barnum & Bailey from 1881 until 1885 when he was struck and fatally wounded by a freight train. Jumbo’s statue stands in London’s Natural History Museum, and Barnum had the hide, skeleton, and heart sold to different institutions (the skeleton is still displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City). The stuffed hide, which was donated to Tufts University, was destroyed in a fire in 1975.
Discovered on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1990, Sue is one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found. The Field Museum in Chicago purchased the skeleton at auction and has displayed it since May 2000. Sue (a rather disarming name for a T. rex) is also the oldest T. rex ever discovered; her bones indicate she was about 28 years old when she died.
It is interesting to note that almost all of these animals are housed in museums and universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, and all of them are located in the West. While I deliberately searched for famous animals elsewhere in the world—such as Southeast Asia and Africa—information was limited and nothing notable surfaced. I suspect this has something to do with colonialism and buying power among Western museums, but perhaps that is too simple an explanation.
Research for this post was rather informal (i.e. Google searches and surveys of other Art Gallery and Museum Studies students), but I think that reflects the ‘famous’ status of these animals. Their histories are varied and their significance is subjective; museum objects—whether they be geological, anthropological or zoological—hold different meanings for different visitors, and their impact can greatly influence people’s perspectives on museums in general and the world as a whole.
For more information:
http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/galleries/green-zone/central-hall/dippy/index.html (the dinosaur in London)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dippy (the statue in Pittsburgh)
Fénykövi Elephant (Henry):