Habitat dioramas, then, preserved something of this dwindling American mythos—but their success in doing so depended on their veracity, which required that curators invest their habitat displays with immense detail. Akeley and William Hornaday, the chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, took pains to gather what Hornaday called “natural accessories” to make the dioramas both realistic and artistic. In the foreground, plants were transplanted from a real site or recreated in a natural likeness; backgrounds were painted from site photographs and designed to recall the sense of a far-reaching space, a space that Turner had declared lost. And, of course, the taxidermy was critical, as a credible illusion required that the animals appear to be animate. The displays succeeded or failed based on the degree to which they recalled the idea of an American wild, an ecosystem to be both exploited and preserved.
Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps the most popular embodiment of this moment in the American cultural identity. Roosevelt’s 1909 Smithsonian expedition to Africa still holds the title of highest number of kills: 5,013 mammals, 4,453 birds, and 2,322 reptiles and amphibians, for a total of 11,788 animals. But in what seems like a striking contrast to contemporary eyes, Roosevelt was also a stalwart conservationist who created the U.S. Forest Service, establishing 150 national forests, five national parks, and numerous animal preserves across hundreds of millions of acres.
Hornaday, like Roosevelt, was a crusader for conservation: He fought to establish the National Zoological Park, which housed live buffalo, testified before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources to protect seals from slaughter, and lobbied to restrict the sale of game meat in New York state. And, like Roosevelt, Hornaday racked up expedition kills in the name of conservation. In the 1880s, concerned with the near-extinction of the American bison, Hornaday set out on a series of western expeditions to the Montana, Dakota, and Wyoming territories, killing 25 buffalo for use in museum dioramas, which he called “artistic groups.” The resulting exhibits both informed the public of the animals’ endangerment and ensured that, if the American buffalo were to become extinct, something of the animal would remain.
Akeley’s habitat dioramas expanded upon Hornaday’s approach to museum displays. His gorilla diorama for the American Museum of Natural History, in particular, provided a foundation for Americans’ understanding of gorillas and their connection with humans. In an account of one of his expeditions, he described approaching an adolescent gorilla after spearing him: “I came up before he was dead. There was a heartbreaking expression of piteous pleading on his face. He would have come to my arms for comfort.” At the time, this sympathetic tale was one of the only written accounts of human interaction with gorillas, and sparked a significant popular interest in the animals. Throughout his writings, Akeley imbued the animals he killed with human-like traits—and even today, few other spaces package animals for a human audience as effectively as the kind of habitat diorama he helped to develop. Inanimate creatures, taken from the animate world, are posed into imagined scenes: lions attacking, leopards prowling, gorillas interacting as family units.