North American Wildlife Bears

A New Look at North American Wildlife

Biodiversity is revealed in a new hall in the Museum of Natural History

by Kathryn M. Duda

For the first time in its long history, the Hall of North American Mammals has been thoroughly renovated, and it reopened November 16, 1995, as the Hall of North American Wildlife--a name that reflects the hall's new direction in presenting the vast biodiversity of the North American continent. Known for nearly nine decades simply as Mammal Hall, this popular area on the second floor of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History now shows North American mammals as they co-exist with other animals, plants, insects and geographical features in their individual ecosystems.

The renovation marks the second phase of the museum's long-range plan to revitalize the permanent life science exhibits. The first phase was completed in 1993 with the opening of the adjacent Hall of African Wildlife.

The next major renovation project is the ALCOA Hall of Native Americans, which was begun in July of 1995 on the museum's third floor, next to Polar World. That hall is scheduled to open in the summer of 1997, according to James E. King, director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. King says the final project, the renovation of Dinosaur Hall, also was started in 1995 and is due for completion in 1998. The focal point of the new Hall of North American Wildlife is the Alaskan brown bear diorama, in which a predatory male bear is in the center of the exhibit hall--outside the glass that encloses the other bears in the group. From atop a large boulder, he approaches a female and her three cubs, who are feasting on fresh salmon near a stream on Kodiak Island, Alaska. The mother has turned to challenge the unwanted male, which has probably approached to harm or kill the cubs. Placing part of the diorama outside the glass, a technique used also in the Hall of African Wildlife, allows visitors to become more involved in the exhibit.

The Alaskan brown bear diorama reveals the hall's new focus on biodiversity and environmental accuracy. In the original 1918 diorama all five bears were grouped together against a background mural that had faded over time. In redesigning the diorama, museum staff separated the male bear from the others, allowing for a more realistic distance between them. Also, the type of salmon being enjoyed by the young bears in the original diorama was king salmon, which is not found in the stream depicted here. In the new exhibit, the cubs nibble on a red salmon, which is common to the area.

Two museum staff members travelled to Kodiak Island, where these animals are found, to study, photograph and collect vegetation for the exhibit. These researchers were Patrick Martin, assistant chairman in the Section of Exhibit Design and Production, who oversaw the redesign of the hall, and plant preparator Abbey Anderson. The information and specimens gleaned from their trip enabled them to arrange the bears, rocks, plants and other small animals in more realistic positions, and to create a panorama that more accurately depicts the Kodiak Island environment. The highly realistic new background was painted by Jerome P. and Elma T. Connelly, the same artists who painted the murals in the elk exhibit and in the Hall of African Wildlife.

The bears are the center of attention in this diorama, but other Kodiak Island animals appear as well, including a Kingfisher, a short-tailed weasel, a red salmon and Glaucous-winged Gulls. Native plants include salmonberry bushes, fireweed (Alaska's state flower), and three types of grasses. High above the male bear and outside the glass, a gull is poised in flight, and sounds of gulls and rushing water can be heard.

Among the many plants and animals added to other exhibits in the new hall are a North American pika, a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, a fritillary and a tiger beetle, which were added to the Fannin Sheep diorama as examples of birds and insects that survive in rugged mountain regions. Representing a warmer environment is the jaguar group, supplemented with a delicate orchid and moss.

Updated lighting adds to the look of the hall as well. Pink lighting in the caribou exhibit now shows visitors the weak sunlight in extreme northern winters, and flexible lighting throughout the hall simulates the season and time of day depicted. The previous incandescent light bulbs have been supplemented with warm and cool fluorescents and a string of track lighting.

These changes allow the museum to depict more accurately the great variety in the animal and plant life, climate and terrain of North America. This continent includes ecosystems ranging from the tundra of northern Alaska and the alpine region of the Rocky Mountains, to the coniferous forest of the northern U.S. and Canada, the deciduous forest of the eastern U.S., the grasslands of the Great Plains, and the deserts of southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

"Many of the impressive mammals [displayed in the hall] were acquired and donated to the museum by former benefactors and showcased as Ôtrophies,' with little emphasis on the environments in which they lived," says Duane A. Schlitter, chairman of life sciences at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Sue McLaren, collections manager in the Section of Mammals, points out that the few supplemental items that were included in the original mammal dioramas were not always apparent to the casual observer.

"In many cases, it was an animal and window dressing," says McLaren of the previous mammal exhibits, which were excellent by the standards of a bygone era, but not scientifically complete. With the new emphasis on biodiversity, however, comes a greater focus on the various elements in each diorama. While the original labels emphasized the hunter and expedition that collected the specimens, the new labels instead point out the physical and behavioral characteristics of the animals, the regions where they're found, and pertinent botanical and geographical features. An educational area in the new hall helps visitors explore two topics that are difficult or impossible to address through dioramas: animal classification and mating. Through a question-and-answer format, visitors use the same criteria scientists use to classify plants and animals. Three video programs on mating interpret the roles of males and females, how mates are chosen, and how the physical characteristics of each gender ensure that reproduction will continue. Videos and computer programs can address supplemental topics, but the museum staff has no plans to replace any part of an exhibit with technology. Nothing on screen, in fact, can replace the experience of standing before a natural history diorama, particularly those of exceptional quality like the ones in the Hall of North American Wildlife. Visitors seeing the dioramas in 1996 feel the same thrill that early 20th-century museum visitors felt when faced with the hulking Alaskan brown bear, or the majestic bald eagle--it's an experience that cannot be replaced by an electronic facsimile.

"There could never be a video created that would give me the same satisfaction as looking at the Mona Lisa in person," says Duane Schlitter, chairman of life sciences at the Museum of Natural History. "It's the real thing, and the same thing applies to natural history museums. A diorama is a moment in time captured, where you can study a scene in detail and see new things every time you look at it. "You'll never get the director of an art museum to say, ÔLet's get rid of all the paintings, because we have videos that people can look at instead.' Likewise, videos can never replace a natural history diorama."

A Historical Perspective

This exhibit hall has come a long way since the first mammal was added to the museum's collections in 1895. For the first three decades of the museum's life, African mammals occupied a considerable portion of what was then known as the Gallery of Mammals, or Mammal Hall, "almost entirely composed of species donated by a liberal and public-spirited friend of our institution, Mr. Childs Frick, Honorary Curator of Mammalogy of the Carnegie Museum," noted then-museum director Andrey Avinoff in a 1927 Carnegie Magazine. The son of Henry Clay Frick, Childs was responsible for collecting and donating most of the museum's African mammals exhibited in the museum.

Around 1930, however, an effort was made to acquire more North American mammals for exhibit, and a booklet published that year about the Carnegie Institute and Library refers to the preparation of a series of groups showing North American mammals. Already installed at that time were the Alaskan brown bear, the black bear, the white- tailed deer of Pennsylvania, the grey fox and opossum, the white mountain sheep and the pronghorn antelope. By then the museum's mammal collection already numbered 6,000 and represented nearly 2,000 species. The North American collection grew steadily over the next 60 years until, in 1993, the African mammals were placed in their own new hall with other forms of wildlife from the same continent. The reopened Hall of North American Wildlife now contains scores of wildlife species, divided into 20 groups of animals. Many of the specimens are the work of the renowned Remi Santens, chief taxidermist at the museum from 1906 until his retirement in 1939. Also represented in the hall are subsequent taxidermists Harold Clement, who followed Santens and was trained by him, and Otto Epping. Many of the background murals were painted by Ottmar von Fuerher, who served the museum from 1922 through 1965. The mammals shown in the Hall of North American Wildlife are only a part of the 115,000 specimens contained in the Section of Mammals' research collection. The mammal collection is now strongest in North American material and contains one of the three best collections in the United States of eastern North American mammals. The collection of mammals of Pennsylvania and adjacent areas is the best in the world, and collections from the eastern Arctic are the best of any United States museum.

The hall's dioramas, which represent nearly 100 years of acquisitions, are now visually unified by the addition of carpeting, cedar paneling, and decorative moulding that complements the ceiling architecture. The revitalization of the Hall of North American Wildlife is a significant accomplishment for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and it was made possible by a generous gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, with additional support from The George Davidson Family and the International Wildlife Fund. Coupled with the adjacent and still new Hall of African Wildlife, it gives the public a dramatic new experience on the museum's second floor.

Kathryn M. Duda is associate editor of Carnegie Magazine.

Collecting at Kodiak Island - A sidebar

The two weeks that Patrick Martin, assistant chairman in the Section of Exhibit Design and Production, and plant preparator Abbey Anderson spent in Alaska doing research for the Alaskan brown bear diorama were immensely helpful in preparing the exhibit, but not without frustrations.

One of their goals was to collect native plants for use in the exhibit, but the plant preparation was time-consuming and sometimes difficult. As soon as the plants were gathered, they were plunged into a glycerine-based preservative, which Martin and Anderson were using for the first time.

"As the grasses dried, the blades curled inward instead of remaining flat," Martin recalls. "So we pressed each individual blade of grass with an iron."

Once the plants had arrived in Pittsburgh, they were dried, starched and painted, having lost their color during the drying process. Plants with wider leaves, such as salmonberry foliage, do not preserve well for display. Martin and Anderson instead took plaster casts of these plants while in Alaska, and recreated them in vinyl for the exhibit. Martin also took a mold of a red salmon, from which he created the epoxy salmon in the exhibit.

Another goal of their expedition was to photograph Kodiak Island so that a panoramic mural could be painted in the diorama. But fog hampered their efforts.

"Once we chose an area to photograph," Martin says, "we had to wait for a clear day. Our motel was thirty miles away from the site, and we commuted for two weeks before we could get a clear photo."

The Hall of North American Wildlife is dedicated to the memory of Lt. Gen. and Mrs. Richard King Mellon in honor of their strong commitment to conservation and preservation. from dedicatory plaque