Historic Camera on Display in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall main content.

Historic Camera on Display in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall

by AMNH on

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Frank M. Chapman began his 54-year career at the Museum in 1888—the very year the first Kodak camera came to market. As it turned out, photography became an important tool in Chapman's work, both in the study of birds and in his campaigns to protect their habitats.


He took several cameras into the field, ingeniously adapting them to his needs. To get closer to skittish birds, he rigged up a remote shutter release using a bicycle pump. He devised trip-wires that took photos of animals as they passed by and experimented with different photo blinds–even tying a camera to an umbrella suspended 12 feet in the air to film nesting Spoonbills—to create what he called his “cloak of invisibility” to study “animals in their native haunts…under absolutely natural conditions.”

Sharing such scenes broadly, Chapman believed, was an effective way to draw attention to nature and conservation. At the Museum, he led the development of “habitat group” exhibits.

Sanford Hall of North American Birds
This diorama in the Sanford Hall of North American Birds depicts. Florida’s Cuthbert Rookery
AMNH/D. Finnin

To prepare for the 1902 opening of the original Hall of North American Birds—the first museum hall in the world dedicated to habitat dioramas—he traveled some 90,000 miles around the continent with a team of artists and taxidermists to gather specimens, take photos, and record details about habitat and animal behavior. Photos also brought birds to vivid life in his publications and lectures.

An old-fashioned Graflex camera that belonged to Frank Chapman
One of Frank Chapman's original cameras is now on view.

Chapman’s message of conservation was amplified by his pioneering use of photography and other visual images. He went on to become an influential advocate, even helping persuade President Theodore Roosevelt, a friend and fellow bird-lover, to designate the first federal bird reserve at Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903. In 2012, one of his many cameras, the 5x7 Graflex, went on display in the reopened Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.

Display case titled "Theodore Roosevelt Firsthand Observer," containing jacket, camera, rifle, bird, and other artifacts with photos and text
Eminent Museum ornithologist Frank M. Chapman influenced the conservation work of Theodore Roosevelt; Chapman's camera is now on display in the restored TR Memorial Hall, in the case at the right. 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Not surprisingly, Chapman also embraced moviemaking. As early as 1908, he filmed Brown Pelicans in southern Florida. On January 1, 1909, he held the Museum’s first screening of a motion picture, in connection with a lecture on Florida bird life. 

Learn more about Chapman’s friendship with Theodore Roosevelt in the newly restored Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.