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 gentlemen 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 humans 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. 

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