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Finding the Site of an Iconic Museum Diorama

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Each of the Museum’s treasured habitat dioramas depicts a scene from a real place, cast in the light of a particular time of day. These re-creations are based on meticulous observations of scientists in the field and the on-site sketches of the artists who accompanied them. Last fall, Stephen C. Quinn of the Museum’s Exhibition Department took a remarkable trip to locate the exact site of the Museum’s mountain gorilla diorama and record the changes that have taken place in the 80-plus years since Carl Akeley’s final visit. Below is Quinn’s article about his journey, which originally appeared  in the Summer issue of Rotunda, the Members’ magazine.

When Carl Akeley—explorer, naturalist, artist, and taxidermist who created the Museum’s Akeley Hall of African Mammals—first encountered the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) in 1921, it was a creature steeped in myth and folklore. Akeley, who was researching and collecting specimens to create the now-famous mountain gorilla diorama, was among the first to accurately document mountain gorillas as intelligent and social animals that, even then, were under grave threat from overhunting. His research inspired him to dedicate the last few years of his life to the conservation and protection of the mountain gorilla. Akeley convinced King Albert of Belgium to set aside 200 square miles that would be their sanctuary, creating Africa’s first national park, which today lies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the border with Uganda and Rwanda, and which has been classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO since 1979.

As an exhibit designer, diorama artist, and naturalist at the Museum for the past 36 years, I have been immersed in the great history of its many accomplishments in promoting wildlife conservation. My book, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, documents the role these unique works of art and science—and their creators—played as powerful instruments for environmental education. Among them, Carl Akeley stands apart.

To share and better understand the extraordinary story and historic example of how his art influenced international policy, I traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo last fall with a fellowship grant from Artists for Conservation and support from the Museum, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project, the Houston Zoo Wildlife Conservation Program, the University of California, Davis, and the Explorers Club. My expedition took me deep into the Virunga Massif to climb Mount Mikeno, an extinct volcano, to seek out Akeley’s original research site, which he had called “the most beautiful place in all of Africa.” After he had successfully campaigned to save the Virungas, Akeley would die at that very location during a return visit in 1926.

From the same location and vantage point that Akeley took nearly a century ago, I created a plein-air painting to illustrate the changes to the ecology and topography in the last century. The lower valley that appears in the diorama background in New York as untouched wilderness is now a landscape dramatically altered by humans. Though the volcanoes and near forests look much the same, the distant valley below is a patchwork of farms, large areas cleared for firewood and charcoal production, roads, radio towers, and refugee camps from the ongoing civil war in the Congo.

About 780 mountain gorillas remain in the wild, living in the Virunga Mountains where the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo intersect. Political instability, deforestation, and illegal poaching leave much of Akeley’s legacy threatened. Poaching is still so prevalent that frequent interventions are made to anesthetize and untangle ensnared animals that would otherwise die a slow and agonizing death. When visitors to the Museum stand before this diorama, they must know that the area no longer exists as rendered in the background scene.

To reach the Congo, we flew from New York to Kigali, Rwanda, then drove to cross into the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the border town of Goma, where threats from rebel fighters have made United Nations troops a necessary presence. After a night in Goma, our team drove about 50 miles north to reach the ranger station at Virunga National Park and meet the armed ranger patrol that would accompany us to Mount Mikeno.

The climb up Mount Mikeno was steep, and as we made our ascent I felt the effects of altitude sickness. I could only imagine how Akeley must have felt as he climbed Mount Mikeno in 1926, when he was suffering from malaria and dysentery. We reached Kabara, the site of Akeley’s camp, to enjoy the same view of Mikeno’s jagged peak that Akeley and his team saw 85 years ago. We were only a short walk from Akeley’s gravesite, which I located that evening: a dark sinkhole in the forest floor, overgrown by the jungle.

On the third day, we hiked up the slopes of Mount Karisimbi to find the site of the gorilla diorama. To serve as my “map,” I brought images of the field sketch that the artist William R. Leigh had completed while on the 1926 expedition and which were later used as the basis for the diorama painting at the Museum. We bushwhacked through the forest, and, whenever I could get a clear view, I saw the landscape elements—volcanoes, hills, and valleys—aligning. After several hours of climbing, I finally stepped out into a clearing and found myself in the very place depicted in the sketch. We took GPS coordinates and named the site officially as “AMNH Akeley Mountain Gorilla Diorama Site–AFC, 2010.”

Now it was on to the second goal of the expedition: capturing the scene on canvas. It was a perfect day for painting. The two volcanoes, Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, were billowing smoke and steam in the morning light in all their glory. But while Leigh had worked at a leisurely pace, making his sketch over two weeks and painting only an hour or two each morning to capture the same light and shadows every day, I had to work fast. After setting up my field easel, I painted for six hours using fast-drying acrylic paints before heading back to our campsite for the final night on Mikeno.

Early the next morning, I was happy to be on my way down the mountain to begin the long trip home. Akeley, on his 1921 descent, wrote that his mind was filled with thoughts of saving the mountain gorillas and fears that they might be lost before action was taken. My own mind, as I hiked down through a magnificent Hageniaforest and dense bamboo, was filled with the hope that the art I made on the mountain would, in some way, assist in inspiring efforts to protect this wilderness for future generations.

Returning to work at the Museum after my expedition, I stopped before the mountain gorilla diorama and marveled at how Akeley’s mounted specimens convey the personal character of each animal depicted. Every botanical specimen is perfectly modeled: the Hagenia and Hypericum trees, the wild celery gorillas love to eat, even the Ruwenzori blackberries that I feasted on up on Mikeno. Despite the changes that have taken place in the valley below, the exhibit is so powerful that to stand before it is to be there still.

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