Carl Akeley’s African expeditions, 1896-1927

Adventurer archetype Carl Akeley (1864-1926) was an exceedingly productive taxidermist, sculptor, explorer and inventor.  His interest in ornithology begat a need to preserve specimens, so young Akeley read up on the subject and taught himself the basics of taxidermy.  He subsequently landed a job with science education supplier Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, then further refined his craft in jobs with a series of increasingly prominent museums.

Hearing of his achievements the British Museum in London offered him a position, but on his way, he stopped in Chicago where he was enticed to join their Field Museum of Natural History instead. Winning Carl over by the promise of African travel, he led two major expeditions while in their employment, the first in 1896 and later in 1905.

— “Carl Akeley.”  Wild Film History.  Web.  17 February 2010.

Chicago’s Field Museum has posted 136 of Akeley’s hand-coloured slides and black-and-white photographs to Flickr, a selection of which I have excerpted below.  See their Africa Expeditions set for more.

View of trees, hills, grass. Lake Elementeita, Mau Escarpment, British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Trees and scenes, mountain in background. Diorama accessory study. Voi, British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

View on river shore with large canoe or boat, abandoned. Mombassa, British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Expedition camp, three tents with members inside. British East Africa, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Small child in front of tents, holding an unidentified object. British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Young cheetah growling at camera, teeth bared. British Somaliland, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Young mammal, possibly Bovidae Oryx. British Somaliland, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Berbera at night. Berbera, Woqooyi Galbeed, British Somaliland, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Akeley died during his fifth and final African expedition, and is buried in Albert (now Virunga) National Park.  He left behind an enormous and meticulously catalogued collection of specimens—his crowning achievement.  Today, three-quarters of a century after it was first opened to the public, that collection of 28 stunning dioramas continues to amaze visitors to the American Museum of Natural History.

In total, Carl launched five collecting trips to the African subcontinent, joining Theodore Roosevelt on his 1909 expedition while he was working for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Filmed by Cherry Kearton for the feature, With Roosevelt in Africa (1910) it also provided many specimens still on display in the museum in a wing named in Carl’s honour – the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

— “Carl Akeley.”  Wild Film History.  Web.  17 February 2010.

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