Contradiction and the Scientist-Explorer hybrid

by Amelia Mutter

In “Teddy Bear Patriarchy – Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936”, Donna Haraway gives a detailed depiction of progressive era safariist, adventurer, taxidermist, big game hunter, and museum curator Carl Akeley.  Haraway’s story focus on Akeley’s work obtaining subjects and compiling dioramas for the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. These works, completed in the early 20th century ares till a significant part of the museums collection today. This chapter is part of a larger compilation entitled “Primate Visions – Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science”, with the aim of presenting a “history of modern sciences and popular culture emerging from accounts of the bodies and lives of monkeys and apes” (Haraway, 1).  Teddy Bear Patriarchy tells the story of one man’s sojourns in nature and his mission to bring African wildlife to New York.  However, is Akeley a scientist?

If anything, Akeley fits the stereotype of the gentleman explorer.  His safaris are well funded and include the employment of numerous African attendants, as well as white personnel, “cars, cameras, and abundant baggage” (52). His contemporaries are other imperialist white upper class men including Teddy Roosevelt, Leopold II of Belgium and the Prince of Sweden.  The objects of the hunt are prime specimens of large charismatic megafauna.  He is seeking trophies like the rest.  Akeley, like his contemporaries, was seeking out the perfect or “typical” representations of the species being symmetrical, large statured males.  In modern day terms, this has a very anti-scientific connotation.  In the 21st century, trophy hunters are often cited as one of the greatest threats to large African species and can even threaten extinction (ex. African Elephant, Black Rhino, etc.).  This interpretation makes Akeley seem more like a colonizer than a scientist.  As zoological expectations have shifted to glorify studying the behavior of animals in the wild, entering their habitat with the aim of killing them seems highly contrary to modern day scientific aims.

In reality, however, preservation of scientific knowledge was one of Akeley’s primary objectives.  He viewed his dioramas as a way to counteract extinction.  Haraway writes, “Akeley feared the gorilla would be driven to extinction before it was adequately known to science.  Scientific knowledge canceled death; only death before knowledge was final, an abortive act in the natural history progress”(34).  This concept is so opposing to modern preservation ideals, that it is difficult to grasp.  By killing so many gorillas, Akeley’s party was speeding them toward extinction but at the same time they were aiming to preserve them in the name of science.  Elsewhere, Haraway notes that Akeley hoped for the preservation of gorillas through the creation of a protected area, although this was secondary to his curatorial ambitions.

Despite this contradiction, Akeley was a self-proclaimed naturalist and seemed to want to discourage hunting by others, by any means at his disposal.  Haraway quotes him as explaining as his reasoning for taking white women Gorilla hunting, “As a naturalist interested in preserving wild life, I was glad to do anything that might make killing animals less attractive” (34).  In his perspective, by encouraging the inexperienced women in his party to shoot, this reduced the temptation of other men using the hunt as a way of proving masculinity.  We cannot know if this tactic worked, however Akeley’s self-image as a naturalist is important.  It suggests that his intentions were in fact to capture nature, not to dominate it.

More than anything, Akeley’s hunts were driven by his role as a taxidermist.  As Haraway writes,  “From the beginning Akeley’s life had a single focus: the recapturing and representation of the nature he saw” (36).  His skill earned him the respect of museum curators across the country, and the opportunity to present his specimens as art to museumgoers.  Each diorama represents habitat groups which Akeley called a “peep-hole into the jungle”. As previously mentioned, he sought out specific specimens and curated groups of organisms.  He provided a painted backdrop and foliage to fit the scene.  These dioramas speak more to Akeley the artist, rather than Akeley the scientist.  These artifacts supplied a specific visual aesthetic and were primarily intended to entertain and contrary to Akeley’s aim provided a view of Africa that was not particularly representative.  In fact as Haraway explains, “No visitor to a merely physical Africa could see these animals.  This is a spiritual vision made possible only by their death and literal re-presentation.  Only then could the essence of their life be present.” (30).  In this sense, Akeley failed to represent nature as such, instead presenting a more artful depiction of the organisms and organism groups.  Akeley’s art was not entirely innocent, however.  Haraway writes, “Nature is, in “fact” constructed as technology through social praxis.  And dioramas are meaning-machines.  Machines are maps of power, arrested moments of social relations that in turn threaten to govern the living” (54).  The view constructed had a particular purpose and showed the organisms in a light that was not entirely un-political.  Akeley and his team made strategic choices in their representations.  But without prescribing intention to them we cannot know their aim.

Although it is my instinct to attribute Akeley’s works as art, rather than science, by drawing a parallel to Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (1979), I come to understand the distinction is not so clear.  Latour and Woolgar carry out the study of a scientific lab and through this draw certain conclusions about scientific “fact”.  Specifically, I find their explanation of the generation of scientific papers as similar to Akeley’s dioramas.    While each diorama is selected to show a specific idealized perception of an animal or group, it can be argued that scientists use literary inscription to stylize papers in a similar way.  Latour and Woolgar write, “the anthropologist feels vindicated in having retained his anthropological perspective in the face of the beguiling charms of his informants; they claimed merely to be scientists discovering facts; he doggedly argued that they were writers and readers in the business of being convinced and convincing others” (88).

In examining the lab from the removed viewpoint of anthropologists, Latour and Woolgar reveal the lab’s work as “the organization of persuasion” rather than the revelation of scientific “facts”.  With this in mind, it is not surprising that when viewing Akeley’s work from the removed point of the future, it does not look much like science either.  With 20/20 hindsight we can easily admire his artistic and technical talents, but it is harder to equate his practices with modern day scientific standards.  It is impossible to say if he was primarily a scientist an artist or an explorer, but rather that he was all three.  Haraway herself seems to think that these distinctions are unimportant.  She writes, “Fiction’s kinship to facts is close, but they are not identical twins.  Facts are opposed to opinion, to prejudice, but not to fiction.  Both fiction and fact are rooted in epistemology that appeals to experience” (4).  From this perspective, it seems unnecessary to categorize Akeley as a purveyor of fact (scientist) or fiction (adventurer/artist).  Rather, he was some kind of hybrid.

References:

Haraway, D. (1989). Primate Visions – Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York & London: Routledge.

Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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