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C h a p t e r 3 Stuffed: Nature and Science on Display John Herron If you wish to see the lone survivor of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, visit the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. Tucked into a dark corner on the fourth floor is a humidity-controlled glass case containing the stuffed remains of a twenty-nine-year-old decorated veteran from Custer’s Last Stand. Nicknamed “Comanche” because of his bravery in past Indian engagements, he was found two days after the battle by a military recovery and burial team; he was still bleeding from a severe shoulder wound. A steamer rushed him to North Dakota’s Fort Abraham Lincoln, where army surgeons removed three bullets from his broken body. A fourth bullet, too deep and too dangerous to be removed, remained. Weakened by the experience , this soldier remained in the service but would never see active duty again. After he succumbed to colic in 1891, the army marked his death with full military honors. At the museum, however, the St. Louis native is in top form: he stands erect, head held high, hair combed, shoes polished, and dressed in the full military uniform of the famous Seventh Cavalry Regiment. If the display of a soldier’s cadaver seems a little morbid, know that Comanche is a horse.1 “The Brave Horse” Comanche is impressive, but he is not the star attraction of the museum. That honor goes to the Panorama of North American Plants and Animals. The panorama is a massive, multistory diorama containing more than 120 stuffed animals. As visitors walk around the circular dis- Stuffed 49 play, they travel through the continent’s divergent ecosystems. Starting in the rain forest of Central America, guests see tapirs and toucans grouped amid fig trees, arrowroot bushes, and patches of wild cacao. At the opposite end of the panorama, jungle gives way to ice as harbor seals and polar bears search for food amid stands of black spruce and arctic willow. The largest sections of the panorama are devoted to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. There museum patrons see moose, mountain lions, and most impressive, American bison. A collection of badgers, beavers, bears, otters, ocelots, wolves, and wolverines , all gathered around an artificial lake, completes the scene. Even in an age of museum animatronics and modern video displays, the panorama is impressive. Figure 3.1. Panorama of North American Plants and Animals at the Chicago World’s Fair. Photo courtesy of University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. 50 Chapter 3 Wonder does not translate into popularity, however. The Kansas Museum of Natural History looks exactly as an underfunded university museum should. Exhibits are dated, interactive models are broken, and each time I have visited the panorama, I was the only patron in the room. But it was not always so, for the panorama had a brilliant beginning. The display was first unveiled as the centerpiece of the Kansas State Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Kansas building was large—one of the biggest state pavilions of the fair—and the panorama dominated the structure. Eight railroad cars crammed with animals and accessories were required to ship the panorama from Lawrence, Kansas, and once these were in Chicago, five technicians worked for several hectic months to ready the display for viewing.2 In an event dedicated to celebrating American progress and technological achievement, it was this motley collection of stuffed things that captured everyone’s attention. Nearly fifteen thousand visitors saw the panorama on opening day, immediately establishing the animals as a World’s Fair must-see. Hometown newspapers, such as the Kansas City Star, helped create an early buzz. The panorama is a “wonder of the world,” the paper trumpeted, “for nothing in its line in Europe or America excels it.”3 This singular uniqueness was a common theme, and other news outlets repeated a similar commentary . F. D. Palmer in Scientific American described the panorama as “one of the most remarkable exhibits to be seen at the great Fair.” “Professional men from all over the world,” the author continued, “say this is the finest group of mounted animals they have seen, and that there is nothing like it in the world.”4 In The Book of the Fair, a commemorative guide to the Columbian Exposition, the historian Hubert H. Bancroft was equally effusive. The panorama was not just the highlight of the Kansas building...


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