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That Portentous Effigy, continued

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, 1878, 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 and 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)

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