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The male African bush elephant, Loxodonta africana, that is the centerpiece of the rotunda has long been a symbol of the museum. It was unveiled in 1959, and at that time was the world’s largest land mammal on display in a museum. The hide, weighing two tons, was donated to the Smithsonian by the Hungarian big-game hunter Josef J. Fénykövi. Fénykövi tracked the elephant in the Cuando River region of southeastern Angola in November 1955.
Smithsonian taxidermists, led by Chief Taxidermist William L. Brown, spent sixteen months preparing the animal for exhibition. Studying living African elephants at various zoos, they made many sketches and photographs. They used over 10,000 pounds of clay to shape the life-size model of the body, over an armature of wood, metal lathe, plaster, and sisal fiber. They had to work in a special plastic house supplied with steam to keep the clay from drying out. They developed the model in three sections: two halves of the body and the head. The skin, tanned in three pieces, was laid on top of the clay model and every wrinkle painstakingly restored. A plaster and sisal fiber mold was then made on top of the skin to hold it in position. The assembly was taken apart into the three sections, the inner armature and clay were removed, and plaster applied to the inside of the skin. When dry, the inner coating of plaster was carefully removed, and several layers of papier-mâché, burlap and aluminum screening were laminated to the hide. This produced a thin-walled manikin, very tough and durable. The two body halves and head were joined together and fastened with wood ribs from inside the body, via a trap door cut in the stomach. The outer plaster was then laboriously chiseled away, exposing the outside skin, which was finally impregnated with colored beeswax.
The tusks seen on the elephant are not original. They are fiberglass casts, installed in 1988 to replace earlier celluloid casts. The original tusks, weighing ninety pounds each, are kept at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center, as they were considered too heavy for the mount. The eyes are made of hand-blown glass.
The Fénykövi elephant has been restored several times, and the setting or “exhibit” in which it is placed in the Rotunda has also changed over time. It has been the scene for many special events at the Museum and is often the meeting point for families and school groups.
Listen to Frank Greenwell, taxidermist at the National Museum of Natural History from 1957 to 1999, talk about the Fénykövi Elephant.
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