The Royal Museum for Central Africa was originally conceived by Belgian King Leopold II with an aim to promote commercial and public interest for the Congo Free State at the Brussels World's Fair in 1897. In 1898, following the huge success of the exposition, the Palace of the Colonies became Musée du Congo.
In its 100 years of history the Royal Museum for Central Africa, more commonly known as the Museum of Tervuren, has developed from a typical colonial institute into a museum and important study centre for Central African research and collections, including all aspects of cultural anthropology and the natural science of botany, geology, and zoology.
† The museum is currently undergoing its first significant renovation process since colonial times and is expected to reopen in mid-2017.
Visitors to the Museum at Tervuren are often impressed by the life-size mounted elephant which takes a prominent place in the center of the natural history displays. What kind of historical process and spatial practices were involved in the transformation of this animal from Africa to Brussels and from living animal into museum display of nature?
In 19th Century Europe taxidermic animal displays became useful and interesting in natural history museums and international exhibitions for educational and entertainment purposes in an age long before the advent of wildlife photography, motion pictures, television and computer technologies.
Taxidermy is a fundamental method of preserving animals and has long played an important role in building museum's zoological collections for scientific study rather than exhibition. Natural history collections are a source of knowledge and many contain unique specimens that cannot be collected again easily – or at all, in some cases. Despite changing social attitudes to the display and use of an animal's dead body, the museum's scientific collection continues to function as an essential resource for study both now and for future generations of zoologists.
The art of taxidermy – a profession often overlooked and misjudged – is not about reanimation of a dead animal. Zoological collections provide an invaluable insight into both the social and the scientific role taxidermy has played over the years. The work of a taxidermist is a technical and highly artistic skill with the object of producing an animal that shows the beauty and drama of a living animal. On closer inspection, the mounted specimen reveals the secret of its assembly: showing how materials and techniques employed by taxidermists have evolved through time, with examples of high quality mounts alongside early nineteenth century styled specimens.
In July 1956, The Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo embarked on a zoological expedition, led by the noted ichthyologist Max Poll, to Kasai and Ituri.
A typical mammal-collecting field trip involves a great deal of preparation, a tremendous assortment of supplies, proper field care of specimens and a dedicated crew of people. To ensure the success of the mission, Max Poll was accompanied by the taxidermists Armand Opdenbosch and Louis Poelman, who were in charge of data collecting and preparing large game animals in the field for museum purposes. The principle mission was to collect good-quality specimens for exhibit in the "Pavillon de la Faune" of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi section at the Brussels Universal and International Exhibition, named Expo 58.
The exhibition featured Congo's most important and rare animals in habitat groups of the four major ecological environments in the Congo: the Southern and Northern Savannah, and the Central and Eastern Forest-Savannah. The animals were placed against a background of large photomontages, enlivened with jungly plants to simulate their wildlife habitat.
The taxidermist company, Rowland Ward Ltd. of London, one of the leading taxidermists of his day, supplied mountings to museums all over the world, including the Museum of Tervuren. The giant Kasai elephant is one of a number of large mammals which were mounted by Rowland Ward Ltd. for the Brussels World's Fair. Its unbelievable life-like qualities, an example of Ward's superb taxidermy work, never fails to mesmerize the onlooker.
Documents, photos and a collection of letters between Ward and the Museum can be found at the Museum's Archives, such as Ward's detailed instructions for proper field care, agreed purchase orders and letters of transactions between Ward and the different keepers, giving prices and showing precisely the kinds of specimens Ward was producing.
When the World's Fair closed on 19 October 1958, the animals transferred to the Royal Museum for Central Africa. As part of the museum's exhibit modernization program a series of natural history dioramas were created, presenting the taxidermied specimens in an illusionary wildlife habitat arranged according to the geographical origin of the animals.
The construction of the 15 dioramas began in 1959, under the direction of Armand Opdenbosch, Chief Technician and taxidermist (1929-1977), with a final installation in 1972. Max Poll, Curator of the Department of Zoology (vertebrate section) and a skillful watercolorist, painted the backgrounds and designed the scenery elements. The habitat dioramas remained on view for a quarter of a century until they were destroyed in 2014, when the museum embarked on an extensive and drastic modernization project.
Habitats displays can be considered an early form of virtual reality intended to inspire wonder and raise environmental awareness and concern.
Nowadays, they are often claimed as an outdated display form and perceived as part of the history of the natural history museum. Acting as uncomfortable reminders of past scientific and colonial practices, many museums are challenged in their methods of showcasing it.
The streets of London are filled with many strange sights, but one of the strangest of all occurred one morning at the end of a dead-end street called Leighton Place in the northern section of London. There, from an oversize doorway of a rambling old building, emerged a huge bull elephant, standing on a wooden platform and towering over 10 workmen rolling it onto the street. As the startled bystanders quickly realized, the elephant was only a stuffed animal. But it was a spectacular example of the handiwork of one of the most unusual practitioners of taxidermy in the world, a 100-year-old firm called Rowland Ward Ltd. Even for them it was a rare job, the first stuffed elephant they had completed since 1908.
Out on Leighton Place, where it had been moved for crating and shipping, the elephant looked almost roguishly real. This remarkable verisimilitude was a tribute to the craftsmanship of Rowland Ward and its ability to take on any kind of taxidermy job, no matter how great the demands. The elephant it had received belonged to the species knochenhaueri Loxodonta africana; the African Bush Elephant, the world's largest land animal, is characterized by its large ears and prominent tusks. The animal was found on the Bushimaie River in South Kasai of the Belgian Congo and had been shot for the Belgian government, which wanted to exhibit it at the Brussels 1958 World Exposition.
When the skin was taken off, it was laid out on a bed of leaves and a mixture of alum and salt was rubbed into it; it weighed over 600 kilos and had to be carried by 60 natives to the main camp. During the night it was protected by 40 armed game-department employees from villagers trying to seize the meat. The skinning was completed in the remarkably short time of 13 hours. For a week preparation continued and the skin was shaved to a fine, even surface up to half its original thickness. Finally, it was spread out on a bamboo drying-board and well sheltered to protect it from the sun. Several times a day the skin was moved and covered at night to control swings in temperature and humidity. Four weeks after its arrival at the camp, it weighed 150 kilos and was ready to be rolled up into a bundle for shipment to London.
When the skin arrived at Rowland Ward's factory, rolled like a piece of linoleum, it was a hardened, dry mass, in some places two inches thick. The first stage is to "relax" the skin to make it pliable to work with. It was soaked for 20 days in a solution consisting of water and carbolic acid. After soaking, the next thing was to reduced the skins thickness and was tediously pared down to a quarter inch with double-handed drawknives. And at this stage no outsider could have imagined the truly lifelike model that would eventually emerge.
The wooden skeleton around which the elephant was built was a mass of short lengths of timber. In order to support the weight of the tusks, the skull was partially cut away and incorporated in the frame. Over and around the whole structure went the modeling, layers and layers of wood wool, bound by twine and subjected constantly to measurement. The half-done structure looked, as one wit put it, "like a shaggy elephant story."
Finally, the hide, which had meanwhile been kept immersed in water, was placed over the framework, with the aid of a tackle operated through an opening in the ceiling. At the base of the model the floor had to be dug away to a depth of two feet to give sufficient vertical height for the elephant. Once in position a second modeling process took place, during which the skin had to be constantly sprayed so that it remained pliable enough for the modelers to work with. Like so much formless rubber, it was pulled and pushed and tied into the correct folds and taut portions until the complete lot could dry and hold the desired shape by itself.
The elephant had to be sewn up along the underside of the belly, the head and trunk and inside the legs. Measurements and notes on the eye were taken in the field, the colour was checked against scientific specimens at the London Zoo and a pair of glass eyes were specially prepared, painted and "baked" by one of the women taxidermists.
Once the modelers had completed their work, the elephant had to be dried. Not so fast that the seams or even the skin itself ripped open but fast enough to allow the finishers to hide the skin's imperfections and colour the body. The drying process took 10 weeks and the complete task from start to finish engaged for six months 10 men and one woman, who painted the eyes. The model weighed 1½ tons and measured 15 feet from the tips of its formidable tusks to its tail, and stood 10 feet at the shoulder.
But elephants, despite their size, are only a very small part of Rowland Ward's taxidermy business. In a year it handles from 4,000 to 5,000 individual huntsmen's trophies, mounting anything from a tiger or a lion to the smallest antelope in the world, the dik-dik. Museums from Scandinavia to Portugal to Australia have animals set up by them. Rowland Ward's taxidermists have brought their work, particularly in the finishing, where more modern ingredients are used in the coloring, to a fine peak that equals anything before attained by the firm.
Rowland Ward the English genius who was primarily responsible for the firm's worldwide renown, was born in London in 1847. Although details of his early years are sketchy, it is clear that from a tender age he was extraordinarily interested in all aspects of natural history. Rowland, along with his brother, had been trained by his father Henry, who had at one time been employed by John Audubon, a famous American naturalist. After working for his father for some years, Rowland started his own taxidermy business and established the “The Jungle", Piccadilly London, where most of his patron purchased items for both public and private taxidermy collections.
He discovered and developed the use of wood wool as a foundation for his models. However, his greatest contribution to his firm was the use of wood and metal skeletons, over which was placed the modeling to represent the muscles and flesh. Ward branched out in 1872 into another area, "Wardian Furniture," a style much admired in its day.
Ward also modeled, apart from the usual run of mounted heads and full sized animals, exhibition groups (often of beasts in fierce combat) in surroundings imitating their natural habitat. An avid collector of scientific and rare specimens, Ward acquired dodos, the largest elephant tusks in the world, record horns and animals of every kind and size, from a white tiger to a white hedgehog. He made numerous valuable presentations to the British and other natural history museums. He was a prolific publisher, another branch of the business commenced by Ward and continued by present organizations. His best known book is probably the Records of Big Game, which has been kept up to date by the company in successive editions..
When Rowland Ward died in 1911, an autocratic businessman named J. B. Burlace acquired the business. He sold out in 1937 to two men, Martin Stevens, who was foremost among the younger game enthusiasts at that time, and Gerald Best. The new team hardly had time to dust the cobwebs away before World War II came. The company's premises were blitzed, and the business only barely continued to exist until peace came. Stevens was killed in combat and his share of the business was bought by his friend Best, who chose to expand it, basing his choice on the potentialities of a firm with an established reputation which, he ran successfully for over twenty years. Best had thrown himself like a fury into the organization and traveled extensively in search of new trade, the firm had recaptured all of the glory it knew when its namesake long ago ran the business. When Gerald Best died in 1969 the business was divided into its different trading sections and left to his sons. The taxidermy workshop closed its doors in 1977, when so much of this art form went out of fashion.
Sadly, taxidermists have received little credit for their efforts and biographical information on individuals is therefore very scant. Yet it is increasingly recognised that taxidermy and the scientific preservation of animals form an important part of the history of natural history, inviting curiosity about one of the most famous contributors in this area.
Rowland Ward & Co. exhibition group of beasts in fierce combat. The scene is rendered with true magic power.
"Elephant Hunting" scene at The Colonial and Indian Exhibition, 1886 London.