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MLA Full: "The 'Sistine Chapel of Taxidermy' - Conserving Akeley's Elephants." YouTube, uploaded by thebrainscoop, 17 January 2018,
MLA Inline: (thebrainscoop, 2018)
APA Full: thebrainscoop. (2018, January 17). The 'Sistine Chapel of Taxidermy' - Conserving Akeley's Elephants [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (thebrainscoop, 2018)
Chicago Full: thebrainscoop, "The 'Sistine Chapel of Taxidermy' - Conserving Akeley's Elephants.", January 17, 2018, YouTube, 07:36,
Come to our meet up at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin on January 27th! RSVP & details here:
The Akeley's Fighting African Elephants are some of the best examples of taxidermy ever created-- but they'll need help if they're to survive the next 100 years.
Our earlier video (from 2013!) about the Akeley's elephants:
More on Carl Akeley from the Field Museum:

Thanks to George Dante and John Janelli for taking time out of their day for these interviews!

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Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Camera, Graphics, Director:
Sheheryar Ahsan

Producer, Editor, Graphics, Director:
Brandon Brungard

This episode is filmed at and supported by The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
Hey, so before we get into this episode two really quick updates.

Number one, if you are anywhere near Berlin Germany We're gonna be there in a week And we're actually having a meet-up at the Natural History Museum there at 10:30 in the morning So there's more information And a link to the Eventbrite page where you'll have to RSVP In the description so check that out if you're gonna be over there We're really looking forward to seeing you! And number two we have gone live with our podcast Explore a story *party blowers* It is a thing that exists now in the world So you can check it out on a playlist here on the brain scoop or in the iTunes Store or most places where podcasts can be found and downloaded and enjoyed so give it a listen and let us know what you think we really hope that you'll like it okay, and now on to the episode and You get to watch some exclusive content of me operating a lift aww now it's not going whoop! wrong way Bye!

Here we go! Whoaaa Carl and Delia Akeley's fighting African elephants were first put on display at the Field Museum in 1909 and can still be seen today in Stanley Field Hall a hundred and nine years later You might remember that we made a video way back in 2013 about how they were prepared We'll leave a link in the description if you want a refresher, but today I want to focus on something I mentioned then about the smaller of the two elephants. (from old video) Carl's elephant can be seen cracking along the edges Presumably because he tried to make it appear larger in death than it was in life (back to Emily in the present) But we no longer think that's the case. It's actually more likely a result of something that happened during the skinning process This was the first one they handled and a combination of a steep learning curve along with some inclement weather Resulted in an uphill battle against decomposition as they struggled to work quickly.

The hide was saved but not before it sustained some damage Today museums employ a variety of strategies to preserve their specimens and artifacts, from controlling environmental factors like light temperature and humidity, to pest management special storage, and rotating objects out of displays But the Akeley's elephants provide a different challenge since they've been on continuous display for over a century And a hundred years of exposure to light and the elements can take a toll. So the Field Museum recently hired a team of Conservators to assess the Akeley's elephants and we got the chance to talk to some of them about why they think it's so Important to conserve artifacts like these for future generations. George

Dante: We're gonna go over every little nook and cranny looking for cracks, delamination to skin any kind of damages Emily Graslie: this is taxidermist George Dante, the founder of Wildlife Preservations

EG: So what are some of the some of the things that you've noticed coming here - like during your evaluation

GD: What we look for is existing cracks that we can see that are immediately visible with no fill in it And we also look for older repaired areas So if you look at this right here you see where this has actually been filled at one point in time We also look for structural damage, so we're looking at the piece We're going over it and as you can see this section of the trunk is actually a bit loose -- uh-oh -- So we can take an x-ray of this -- oh wow -- to see what the structure is on the inside and Better assess how to stabilize it.

EG: So what's going on with this ear over here?

GD: So you know as taxidermy ages a lot of things happen. It dries out But you also get these environmental factors that contribute to its demise and you see the skin has cracked in several places The edge of the ear is cracked quite a bit and the skin has actually pulled away from the armature There is a wire lath and plaster armature inside this ear, so you see the bit of movement in there So that is a big problem So we're gonna look at this we're gonna assess it and see if we could actually Relax the skin and glue this back down and then repair all these cracks

EG: And something like this I noticed that there's a seam here that's been repaired. How long did these repairs last?

GD: It's hard to tell how long a repair will last but thankfully most of the people who repair these did submit documentation on their repairs so sometimes we do have great notes to know A couple of years or several years, so it really depends

EG: So you can't really know for sure based off of like the current Technologies used to fix them if this is going to be a 10-year fix or a hundred year fix

GD: Correct. Because it's skin It's something organic. It's unstable We try to use the very best materials and methods, and we hope that it's gonna outlast us But we really don't know because it all depends on the stability of the piece and how its cared for from this point on

EG: So George shared with me some of the other parts of the elephants they're assessing and the challenges they'll face in repairing them. And it got me thinking, between photos and videos and 3D scanning and modeling, why are we putting all of this effort into preserving the original specimens?

GD: It's a very visceral experience to be this close to these and the zoo just isn't the same and a video is nothing compared to this. Aside from that these are historical artifacts. I mean Carl Akeley was Carl Akeley! So to have these and the method he did these, these are as good as it gets.

I mean, this is the Sistine Chapel of taxidermy. These were direct sculptures So he would build this elaborate iron and wood armature cover it with wire lath and plaster And then mount the skin over the top of that directly and then inject this stucco into it and actually Sculpt the wrinkles from the outside. It's really incredible, so if you look at these That's what actually gives this elephant that softness.

If you look at the wrinkles, they're very supple It's very natural-looking. A modern taxidermy method could never allow you to do this It's the work of a genius sculptor. John Janelli: Wouldn't anybody want to preserve these?

Keep them, make sure they're here for the next generation, and the generation after that?

EG: This is John Janelli He's a taxidermist and has been researching the Akeleys for years. So why is it important to conserve these elephants now today? I mean they're over 100 years old. They're... visibly they have some sign of aging and wear Why is it important to make sure that they're still around for the next hundred years?

JJ: Not only is it important Emily, it's as important as conserving any form of art today. Akeley showed the world that Art and taxidermy must come together To do things like this because his ultimate goal was not just in recreating Not just in portraying the truth of nature But doing it in such a permanent style. In a hundred years for any mounted animal to be with us it's extraordinary!

EG: And this touches on how conservation and preservation Aren't exactly the same thing. We preserve Artifacts and specimens to keep them for future study and research, like how Carl and Delia preserved these elephants for us a century ago But the conservation of these objects is a necessary Intervention involving repairs, and to ensure they won't further deteriorate, so they can continue contributing to society. If we think of the Akeley's elephants as sculpture, or works of art Then you could argue that their purpose lies in remaining on display, as John said, to inspire current and future generations, and be admired for the next century We'll get you taken care of It'll be ok It still has brains on it...