Accepted Paper:

Akeley's Gorillas: dark apes in 'Brightest Africa'.  


Richard Crawford (University of the Arts London)

Paper short abstract:

Akeley's gorilla diorama at the American Museum of Natural History was, according to Jeannette Jones, designed to bring a vision of 'Brightest Africa' to visitors, but after Akeley's death the family dynamics of the group were changed by James Clark to represent the dangers of 'Darkest Africa'.

Paper long abstract:

In her book, 'In Search of Brightest Africa '* Jeanette Jones proposes that Carl Akeley planned the gorilla diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to offer the public a vision of wild gorillas living peacefully together on the lush slopes of the Kivu mountains in what was then the 'Belgian Congo'. She argues that this vision of peace and natural beauty reflected Akeley's idea of 'Brightest Africa' - a continent where explorers like himself, could still find places where mammals lived in harmony with their natural environment undisturbed by human interference. Having visited the American Museum of Natural History and seen Akeley's 'Gorilla' diorama at first hand, I would argue that whilst this vision is reflected in the finished diorama, the emphasise has been subtly shifted by James L. Clarke, who supervised its completion after Akeley's death. Under Clarke, more emphasis has been placed on the family dynamics of the gorilla group: whilst the females and juvenile gorillas are represented as resting or feeding, the old male has been posed in an aggressive posture, beating his chest as if to warn away an enemy. I argue that such a change of emphasis reflects institutional discourses of masculinity and a return to the narrative of 'Darkest Africa' in which wild animals constitute dangerous adversaries that test the courage of white explorers.

* Jones, Jeannette (2010) In search of Brightest Africa; reimagining the dark continent in American culture, 1884-1936. Athens. University of Georgia

Panel P003
Representing and Depicting Animals