1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

That Portentous Effigy:

The Life and Death of the Brooks Hall Woolly Mammoth 

Jeffrey L. Hantman

Introduction (1)

The Brooks Museum at the University of Virginia opened its doors in 1878 and for the next seventy years a reconstructed woolly mammoth occupied center stage in the two-story main gallery. Surrounding the mammoth were more than 25,000 minerals and fossils displayed systematically in oak and glass cases lining the walls of the first floor and a wide second-story balcony. (2) A large glyptodont skeleton also stood in the center gallery, slightly in the shadow of the mammoth. (3) It was the woolly mammoth that grabbed the public's attention in 1878 as the image of it still does today. But when the mammoth was removed and destroyed in 1948, one professor bid it farewell and good riddance, saying the University needed a good teaching museum and not just a spectacle such as the plaster mammoth might have appeared. Yet in its time the Brooks mammoth was both the heart and soul of a teaching museum and a "blockbuster show" meant to lure and entertain in matters of natural history. This essay tells the story of the Brooks Museum woolly mammoth and its role as both spectacle and educational exhibit.

In the inaugural lecture opening the Museum in June 1878, James C. Southall barely mentioned the Brooks woolly mammoth in his long oration. He referred to it only twice, once as a "Colossus" and once as "that portentous effigy." (4) Both references acknowledged the size of the faux beast inside the building, but both are also somewhat dismissive in that they emphasize that this mammoth was not real. Real mammoth fossils were then prompting important questions in science which Southall wrote about and described this way: 

"If we can fix the Mammoth's 'place in nature'—to use the words of the gifted [Thomas] Huxley—we can fix that of man; and I am glad that the young gentlement here in the presence of this Colossus, have ever before them a mute, yet persuasive, invocation into the path of Anthropological study." (5)

The mammoth was important to the Museum and the students at the University because it helped to open a path of inquiry in which science could "fix" the age of Homo sapiens—a question then (as now) of anthropological interest. In 1878 the Darwinian revolution still framed the big scientific and philosophical questions of the day, particularly as related to human being a part of nature as opposed to being apart from nature. We do well to consider those late nineteenth-century questions inside the re-imagined Brooks Museum, and in the mind of the man who created the mammoth, Henry Ward. 

Henry Ward, the Scientific Museum and the Business of Science

Henry Ward (1834 – 1906) was the founder and proprietor of the Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. (6) He supplied the exhibits for Brooks Hall as per the terms of the gift fellow Rochester science enthusiast Lewis Brooks, bestowed on the University. A former student at Williams College, an assistant to Louis Agassiz at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Rochester, he became part of an international effort to formalize museum displays for educational purposes. (7) Ward used his formidable knowledge of natural history to forge an unusual career as both an educator and an entrepreneur in the museum supply business. Wearing both hats, Ward knew that the old cabinet of curiosity had become a side-show, and disarticulated fossil bones were dusty and dry. Something more was needed to educate a broader public, and, not coincidentally, create a larger market in which to sell his mineral and fossil specimens. Something more spectacular was needed to draw attention to the stories and questions that Ward thought the natural history museum should provoke. Something more was needed to make the museum breathe and make its objects breathtaking. 

The Life and Death of the Brooks Woolly Mammoth

Ward travelled the globe in search of fossils and minerals to stock, speculating that he would be able to sell these to a growing market of scientific natural history museums. In the midst of such travels in 1877 Ward visited the Royal Institute in Stuttgart, Germany and came face to face with the specimen that met at the juncture of science and spectacle. There he saw the first of the fully reconstructed woolly mammoths, with life-life skin and fur, and eyes that seemed to stare right at and through the viewer if one dared look it in the eye. The innovation of a German naturalist and preparator Doctor L. Martins, the reconstruction was based on fossil bones found in Siberia. (8) Ward had seen mammoth bones from Siberia on an earlier trip to Moscow, but this was a very different experience. At the same time as Ward first saw the great woolly in 1877, he and his staff were also very close to finishing the installation of the exhibits at the Hall of Natural Science (Brooks Museum) at the University of Virginia. No woolly mammoth had been mentioned in the collection he would provide. That changed in Stuttgart.

On August 21, 1877 the New York Times ran a headline and story announcing that the Stuttgart Mammoth had arrived in Rochester, New York “designed for the University of Virginia.” Ward had purchased it for under the $3,000 asking price, spent almost $1,000 to ship it, and had to spend an unknown amount in addition to have workmen labor for three weeks to break it down to ship it across the Atlantic. Reassembled at Ward’s Establishment in Rochester, people flocked to see it. Ward and his taxidermists set to work making copies of the Stuttgart Mammoth. (9)

In December of 1877, the Charlottesville Jeffersonian noted with anticipation that the mammoth at the Brooks Museum was getting ready for reception by the public. On January 9, 1897, the Jeffersonian announced again under the headline “THE UNIVERSITY – THE MAMMOTH” that the mammoth was here. However, it does not appear that the Brooks Museum received the original Stuttgart Mammoth. The fame of the Stuttgart Mammoth led to appearances at charity events in Rochester and invitations to “show” the mammoth at expositions in Pittsburgh and Louisville. That travel extended over the period of time that includes the opening of the Brooks Museum. Further, the materials used to make the Brooks mammoth were simply not the same as those described for the one from Stuttgart. When the Brooks Museum opened in 1878 the Stuttgart Mammoth was elsewhere, soon to meet its final fate under a leaky roof at the Louisville exposition, ca. 1882. (10)

The Brooks mammoth outlived the Stuttgart and many near-contemporaries, including one Ward constructed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Still standing half-way through the 20th century, inside the increasingly disparaged Victorian-Gothic museum, the Brooks mammoth with its skin of plaster of fur of Argentinian pampas grass, was in slow and steady decay. The GI Bill increased enrollment and the need for office and classroom space at the University of Virginia. This tolled a final bell for the Brooks woolly mammoth and its neighbor of seventy years, the glyptodont. On November 30, 1948, the Charlottesville Daily Progress ran a story with the headline “PREHISTORIC MONSTERS YIELD THEIR SPACE TO VIRGINIA STUDENTS.” The newspaper reported: “It took a corps of buildings and grounds workmen most of yesterday to reduce the mammoth and dinosaur to rubble.” Wilbur A. Nelson, chair of the Geology Department, said he had been waiting twenty years to rid Brooks of these animals. In a final epitaph, he said “it isn’t likely that the University will try to acquire any new model dinosaurs or mammoths … the school of Geology needs a good teaching museum and that does not include plaster mammoths.” (11)

A Teaching Museum: the Mammoth’s Place and “Man’s” Place in Nature

I am convinced that education, including the role of the woolly mammoth, was paramount in the mind of Henry Ward. This can be seen first in the comprehensive and systematic displays of minerals and fossils. The displays encircled the mammoth and the glyptodont, constructing an evolutionary narrative from the Silurian era to the appearance of then recently discovered ancestral humans. The first professor hired to teach geology and natural history in the Museum, William M. Fontaine, said of the objects that their chief purpose was as teaching instruments. (12)

What was the role of the mammoth in the midst of all that detail? Was the mammoth brought in at the last minute strictly for the spectacle? To be sure, Ward did not shy away from spectacle. During his career he had worked with Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum and gained much publicity providing taxidermy services on the demise of their most famous animals. (13) There can be no doubt that the woolly mammoth was in the Brooks Museum, in part, for the spectacle it offered. But we miss a larger point if we do not see the questions that the Brooks mammoth raised in the philosophical arena of natural history in the post-Darwinian world. Following the Darwinian revolution, students and a much larger public confronted new questions concerning when and how humans fit in time in an ancient world. What was our place in a constantly changing natural world ruled not be design but by unpredictable forces without clear direction or purpose?

Those questions were framed dramatically in the Brooks Museum central hall where the woolly mammoth and the glyptodont were posed on raised platforms. Their pairing was, I suggest, not coincidental and the less well-known glyptodont helps us understand the mammoth. The glyptodont was a giant, extinct ancestor of the South American armadillo. It had a huge carapace, or “coat of mail,” made of connecting places that were impenetrable. 

The woolly mammoth and the glyptodont and the first humans in the Americas were all Late Ice Age contemporaries. (14) The pairing of these two extinct species thus “fixed” the timing of humans in the Americas—their history extended into the Late Ice Age.

The pairing of the mammoth and the glyptodont also addressed Thomas Huxley and James Southall’s more philosophical question about “man’s” place in nature. Natural historians grappled to come to terms with a post-Darwinian worldview in which humans were cast as one animal among many who had emerged in a world of winners and losers, change, and survival of the fittest. In his 1879 introductory Brooks Museum lecture, Prof. William Fontaine made the Darwinian point explicitly: living things of the earth are not fixed, and future changes will occur that cannot be predicted. (15) The anxiety and wonder of this new worldview found expression in the glyptodont and the woolly mammoth. When opening day speaker Southall described the mammoth as a “portentous effigy,” he echoed Melville’s first mention of Moby Dick (in Ishmael’s opening monologue) as a “portentous and mysterious monster.” (16) Portentous evoke emotional and sometimes conflicting synonyms from ominous and ill fated, to inspiring and remarkable. The woolly mammoth and the glyptodont were giant beasts and prey for human hunters. They were hunted for potentially great return, but at a great cost and risk. The humans survived, the megafauna did not. Pairing the woolly mammoth and the glyptodont in the center of the Brooks Museum would have led professors and students to contemplate the reality of an ever-changing world, where the place of humans in nature was neither certain nor predictable.

There seems little question but that there was an educational purpose intended in the mammoth-glyptodont display. A 1903 national survey asked university museums in North America to define their collections and their purpose. With the woolly mammoth then 25 years old, the University of Virginia’s response was unambiguous: “The museum is composed of specimens intended strictly for illustrating the principles of the sciences taught … it’s strictly a teacher’s museum.” (17) Brooks Museum staff did not single out the mammoth, the glyptodont, or any of the faunal reconstructions. They were part of the same teaching museum mission along with the minerals and fossil fragments. Still, the focus of old newspaper accounts, photographs, and still vibrant 21st century curiosity, reminds us of the somewhat broader story. The giant woolly mammoth was, and is, also a unique spectacle of great interest. 

Conclusion

The Brooks Museum woolly mammoth’s best days were long past when it reached its ignominious end in 1948. Teaching goals change and world’s fairs, movies, and world events, change what was considered spectacular. There’s little doubt but that its time was up. But, when we contemplate the woolly mammoth in its original display context, it regains some of its youthful flair, inspiring us to keep the big and portentous questions of our own times ever-present in our teaching and research. 


Endnotes

  • (1) An earlier version of this paper was presented to the “Arts in Action” symposium accompanying Tom Burckhardt’s interpretation of The Brooks Natural History Museum, c. 1900, University of Virginia Arts Board, September 14, 2011.    
  • (2) Hantman, Jeffrey L., “Brooks Hall at the University of Virginia: Unraveling the Mystery,” The Magazine of Albemarle County History 47: 69, 1989.
  • (3) “University Museum – The Mammoth,” The Jeffersonian January 9, 1878.
  • (4) Southall, James C., “Address on Man’s Age in the World,” Opening of the Lewis Brooks Museum at the University of Virginia, June 27th, 1878. Clemmitt & Jones Printers, Richmond, Va. University of Virginia Special Collections.
  • (5) Southall, James C., “Address on Man’s Age in the World,” p. 12-13.
  • (6) Ward, Roswell, Henry A. Ward: Museum Builder to America. The Rochester Historical Society Publications XXIV, Rochester, New York, 1948; Kohlstedt, Sally A., “Henry A. Ward: The Merchant Naturalist and American Museum Development.” In:  Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History 9:647-661.
  • (7) Koch, Robert G., “Henry A. Ward,” In: The Crooked Lake Review, December 1992, http://crookedlakereview.com/articles; Ward, Roswell, Henry A. Ward: Museum Builder to America.
  • (8) Ward, R. Henry A. Ward: Museum Builder to America. p. 197-198.
  • (9) Ward, R. Henry A. Ward: Museum Builder to America. p. 197-198.
  • (10) Ward, R. Henry A. Ward: Museum Builder to America. p. 227-228.
  • (11) “Prehistoric Monsters Yield Their Space to Virginia Students,” Daily Progress, November 30, 1948.
  • (12) Leslie, Frank, "The Lewis Brooks Museum of Natural Science," Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine [newsclipping], Brooks Hall Prints File, UVA Archive; Fontaine, William M., “Introductory Lecture,” 1879, Special Collections, University of Virginia.
  • (13) Ward, R. Henry A. Ward: Museum Builder to America. p. 222-224.
  • (14) Meltzer, David J., First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America, University of California Press, p. 45.
  • (15) Fontaine, William M., Introductory Lecture, p. 47-48.
  • (16) Melville, Herman, Moby Dick. p. 14.
  • (17) Merrill, Frederick J., Natural History Museums of the United States and Canada, New York State Museum Bulletin #62, Albany, New York, pp. 181-182.

 

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