Amongst the Wild Things

As a child I could NOT walk down the Hall of African Mammals, or it’s brother the Hall of North American Mammals without being directly between my parents and having my head on a swivel; looking back, forth, to the side, and quickly back again. The elephants, lions, water buffalo,  and monkeys- all of them were just moments away from coming alive and leaping from their displays to eat me.

Last Friday, as an adult, I  had the good fortune to be at the Natural History Museum as part of the 1:00pm Gallery Exploration Tour. Our guide made it clear that she was leading us that day to our certain death – to the Hall of African Mammals.

When one starts down the Hall of African Mammals the beacon that calls to them is the scene of enchanting elephants holding court at an empty watering hole situated at the end of the hall. These well-lit, tusked, larger than life sirens command the attention of museum guests the moment their guest eyes even glimpse the Hall. The Mammals that flank either side of the Hall are only a backdrop, a quickly glanced “oh that’s cool” on one’s journey to see The Elephants.

While my group initially fell victim to the elephantine call – our guide led us to admire a more humble creature. On the left, towards the middle, alone, and in a decidedly smaller than most diorama was a gorilla named Chris.

In life Chris was an Angeleno who lived in Los Feliz (in the LA Zoo). In death his body was meticulously measured, sculpted, and taxidermied so he may be here gracing us in the Natural History Museum –forever.

Behind Chris is a depiction the life he knew as a child, a mural recreated by an artist through the photographs and documentation from actual travelers from Chris’ region. Surrounding Chris are the plants and leaves of his homeland. Every piece of foliage is a researched replication of the plants native to his homeland of West Africa. Every single leaf is crafted from a special plastic and then colored, cut, and distressed by hand. The floor alone is strewn with countless hours of hand work. Placed strategically on the foreground is a small circular mirror, the purpose of this mirror at first glance is not clear. A mirror? Who put it there? Why? That mirror was placed there by the detail-oriented craftsman of this diorama in order to reflect the light from above into Chris’ eyes, so they may be as illuminated as they were in life.

Each one of these dioramas is a moment that due to extinction, human population, globalization, and climate change will never, ever be seen again – except here.

For those wanting to see the beauty that is the Hall of African Mammals, more information about the Natural History Museum can be found at http://www.nhm.org/site/

NOTE: I highly recommend taking the 1:00pm Gallery Exploration Tour; every Gallery Exploration Tour is led by a different person who brings to life their own perceived highlights of the Museum. While your guide may not lead  you to Chris directly, they will surely lead you to something magical. See the Natural History Museum website’s Calendar for further details.

To learn more about the majestic creature that Chris was in life, please see the LA Times article that was published at his death http://articles.latimes.com/1997-04-19/local/me-50319_1_zoo-gorilla-dies

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