Nice Cervix

23 February 2010

Gerenuk are pretty goofy looking.  Which is, it seems, about the most interesting thing there is to say about them, without going into the finer details of the art of  antelope artificial insemination.

This particular display is part of the California Academy of Sciences recently revamped African Hall.

Here’s the AP story that ran shortly after the hall first opened in 1934.  And by “shortly” I mean the story ran three years later in 1937–the good days of print journalism huh?

One man’s gun has filled an entire museum here with African game. The hunter is Leslie Simson of Oakland, born the heir to a vast Spanish land grant in California.  Later he bacame a successful mining engineer in South Africa. In 1910 Simson retired from business and for more than two decades roamed the lonely places of Africa.  His trophies constitute possibly the finest personal collection of African fauna in the world. To house part of them he gave $150,000 toward erecting the Simson African hall for the California Academy of Sciences here, now open to the public.  Enough game to fill two similar halls awaits sutiable housing. The group entitled African Water Hole executed by Frank Tose, curator of the academy, is one of the largest museum displays ever created. Surrounded by mementoes of years in the jungle, Bachelor Simson lives with a lone Japanese servant on a hill overlooking San Francisco bay. (from here)

It was that same Japanese servant it seems that together with Simson’s doctor found the mighty hunter dead by his own gun in 1939 at the age of 74.

Before he got around to shooting himself, Simson gunned down untold numbers animals.  Legend has it that he learned taxidermy from his father who himslef was taught the art by John Woodhouse Audubon.  Simson made his fortune as a geologist in the South African diamond mines, where, presumably he developed his, er, fondness for the native fauna of Africa.

Around 1919, Simson and fellow Oaklander Henry Snow led a hunting expedition to Africa in order to obtain specimens for a planned natural history museum in Oakland.  Meanwhile, East Coast rival Carl Akeley was up to much the same thing, collecting African animals for what would become the Akelely Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History.  This race to fill the museums of North America with the corpses of African animals arranged in lifelike positions before finely painted landscapes was fueled, in part, by concern that the great herds would soon become extinct.  Let that one sink in for a second.

When the City of Oakland did not come up with Simson’s requisite “fire-proof building” in time, Simson sent part of his collection to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  Apparently there were enough left over for the California Academy of Sciences, and then some if you believe the AP article.

I’m not sure if these Gerenuk were once Simson’s quarry.  A WPA survey from 1940 lists Gerenuk among the African Hall collections, so they might well be.

The African Hall is probably the only portion of the radically redesigned California Academy of Sciences that still “feels” like a classic 20th century natural history museum a departure from the interactive multi-media Museum 2.0 vibe that permeates the rest of the public exhibits.  Even this is artifice: toxic paint in the murals and seismic retrofitting required that the entire hall be dismantled and reconstructed nearly from scratch, but for two walls and the animals which were cleaned and restored.  The dioramas were redesigned a bit but the murals were painstakingly recreated, though one was enhanced with “virtual elephants” video projected from the ceiling.

For all that hard work, when I’ve been there at least, visitors largely breeze past the dioramas and make a beeline for the live African Penguins at the far end of the hall.

Dead animals are no match for live ones it seems.

Which reminds me, what ever happened to FU Penguin?

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