Carl Ethan Akeley

Carl E.Akeley was born on May 19th, 1864, on a farm near Clarendon, New York. At the age of thirteen, Akeley became interested in birds and by his own admission stated that he felt much out of place on the farm as he was more interested in taxidermy than farming. With the aid of a borrowed book Akeley was able to teach himself the procedures of taxidermy up to a point where he felt justified in having business cards printed announcing that he did ”artistic taxidermy in all its branches.’’

In the fall of 1883 at the age of 19, he decided to widen his interests in the field of taxidermy. Over in the nearby town of Brockport there was an Englishman by the name of David Bruce whose hobby it was to do taxidermy. Akeley went to see Bruce thinking that he may be hired to work in his painter and decorator business, as it had not dawned upon him that someone might actually earn a living from taxidermy, but instead Bruce advised a young Akeley to apply for a job with the famous Wards Natural Science Establishment in Rochester New York. Akeley followed that advice and was subsequently hired by the owner, Professor Henry J Ward at the starting salary of $3.50 a week.

The art of taxidermy as practiced at Wards was very simple by any standards, yet typical of the era. To stuff an animal the skin would first be treated with salt, alum and arsenical soap, the bones wired and wrapped and put back inside the legs, and once hung upside down, the skin literally stuffed with straw until it could hold no more. To thin the body at any point, the skin would be sewn through with a long needle and the hide drawn in. Other shapes or contours would be achieved of this ‘upholstered’ specimen, simply by beating the detail into the mount with a plank of wood.

Akeley left this establishment briefly for a period of six months to work with New York taxidermist John Wallace following a misunderstanding that led to his dismissal from Wards. ‘A more dreary six months l never had spent anywhere’ described Akerleys time at Wallaces Taxidermy of New York. So when Henry Ward came after Carl declaring that his dismissal had all been an erroneous mistake, he happily returned to his former employer and stayed a further 3 years. 

But Carl found little inspiration at Wards. He was critical that much of the work lacked any anatomical accuracy and that there was little attempt by the establishment to put the animals into natural attitudes.
Grouping was unheard of and habitat or ‘accessories’ as it was called, was seldom considered in conjunction with the mount. For an occupation that he had chosen because of its stimulation of a man’s soul in the arts and science, he found little if any of these virtues present in the commercial application. During that time, Carl not content with the current methods of mammal taxidermy began to experiment with those of his own and he was soon able to develop procedures of big-game taxidermy that were to revolutionize the process and standards of taxidermy to come.

On one occasion when an opportunity to trial large mammal carcass casting techniques presented itself in the form of a life-size zebra, he set about skinning and moulding the body in his own time, a process that took him from evening to dawn to complete. He managed to remove the entire skin through one incision to the belly and smaller cuts to the lower legs. Nevertheless the following day he found that someone had opened the zebra skin up entirely and in due course it was mounted in the old way and his casts thrown out onto the dump.

Offered an opportunity to further his education through the courtesy of a former employee to Wards now teaching at a High School in Milwaukee, Akerley left Wards and took a position in the Museum to support his educational expenses. It became the turning point of Carl’s career where over the eight years that he worked at the museum he was able put into practice many of the ideas he had theorized over during his tenure at Wards.

During his time at the museum, Carl not content with the method employed of straw, rag and bone stuffing began to experiment in the production of lightweight, detailed manikins through sculpturing and casting processes. His first project involved the portrayal of a Laplander driving a caribou sled over the snow. This fairly successful project was followed up by another exhibit involving Orangutans collected in Borneo. Overall, they made a good deal of progress in this process at the museum.
In making these groups, Carl abandoned the ways of the old stuffer and set about to make realistic manikins over which to stretch an animal's skin. Whilst sculpturing had been developed for many years through the art of bronze casting, manikin making was a new technique and had to be created comparatively quickly by very few people.

Akerley continued to work out new and more modern methods in taxidermy while at the Milwaukee Public museum and is credited with designing and constructing what is known as a habitat group during his tenure. He remained with the museum for eight years then another twist of fate changed the course of his life. Due to his outstanding work in both taxidermy and museum exhibits, he was offered a position with the British Museum in London. He accepted and on his way there decided to stop off in Chicago for a visit to the Field Museum of Natural History, which had only recently been founded. 

Whilst he was at the Field Museum, the officials hearing of the offer made by the British museum offered him a much better contract and the opportunity to go on expedition to Africa to secure specimens. He accepted on the spot.

Akerley served on the staff of the Field Museum as its Chief Taxidermist for fourteen years contributing much to the art of taxidermy. He led two expeditions to Africa for the Field Museum, the first in 1896, shortly after joining that establishment, and the second in 1905.