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That Portentous Effigy, continued

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 by 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 evokes 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. 

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