To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. -Theodore Roosevelt

Sculpting the American Museum of Natural History - B&C Impact Series

By PJ DelHomme 

A list of those involved in the early years of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) reads like a who’s who of the Boone and Crockett Club. Even though the AMNH opened its doors in 1869—18 years before the Club was founded by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell—the museum was brimming with members of the Club who served in every capacity at the museum. They were janitors and expedition leaders, taxidermists and museum presidents. 


Why a Museum? 

After the American Civil War, “...a new kind of museum was founded with the goal of educating the common man,” writes Stephen Quinn in Windows on Nature. Quinn explains that this focus on museums as “Temples of Nature” was “...designed to educate the growing urban population through public exhibitions.” In the U.S., this was a time when citizens were starting to realize how rapidly nature was disappearing. It’s the same reason members of the Boone and Crockett Club established the Bronx Zoo and the National Collection of Heads and Horns at the turn of the twentieth century. 

Today a bronze Theodore Roosevelt greets visitors at the American Museum of Natural History.

As a 12-year-old boy, Theodore Roosevelt visited the AMNH with his father, a New York City businessman and philanthropist. Roosevelt Sr. was an early champion of the museum and those early visits with his son instilled in Theodore a life-long connection to the museum. In fact, Theodore contributed one of eight African elephants that form the centerpiece of the museum’s African Hall. Theodore used his influence as president of the United States and co-founder of the Boone and Crockett Club to help ensure the museum’s evolution into one of the greatest “Temples of Nature” man ever created. 

The best way to understand the Club’s influence on the AMNH is through the members themselves. What follows is a handful of those who had the most significant impact on the millions of visitors who walk through those doors every year.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, the President
B&C member 1899-1935

With wealthy connections, a disagreeable personality, and a knack for hiring the right people, Osborn served as museum president from 1908-1933. During that time, he raised money, dug up dinosaurs, annoyed his co-workers, and developed a grand vision for the museum. 

Osborn grew up in a wealthy New York City family and graduated from Princeton in 1877. He was childhood friends with Theodore Roosevelt, and Osborn referred to banking tycoon J.P. Morgan as Uncle Morgan because, at one time, Morgan was his uncle. His connections to New York’s elite (as well as his own wealth) would serve him well years later when he began raising money to fund projects at the museum. 

Osborn’s research focused on vertebrate paleontology, and his father’s railroad connections helped Osborn acquire new specimens for the museum. The railroad helped another ways, too. For one, railroad excavations exposed fossil beds. And two, railroads transported specimens back to New York at a discount. Osborn served as curator of the department of vertebrate paleontology until he became museum president in 1908. 

Osborn, far left, joined the Princeton Expedition of 1877 with Francis Speir and William Scott to collect paleontological and geological information in the West. Osborn photographed in 1899, the same year he joined B&C, with fore and hind limbs of dinosaurs from Wyoming.

While Osborn had a vision for growing the museum, some found him and his ideas intolerable. He played favorites and insisted everyone call him Professor Osborn. He took credit for things in which he had little input. He attempted to combine his personal religious views with the prevailing science of the time and used museum resources to try to prove wrong Darwin’s theory of natural selection with a fake human origin story known as “Piltdown man.” 

Uncouth personality aside, Osborn knew how to find dinosaurs. Before becoming president of the museum, he hired 23-year-old fossil hunter Barnum Brown (aka, Mr. Bones). Together, the men found the museum’s first dinosaur in the late-1870s. In 1902, Brown found the first-ever Tyrannosaurus rex buried in Montana, and then he unearthed a complete skeleton of the beast in 1908. Osborn also supported the work and vision of other museum contributors, namely Roy Chapman Andrews and Carl Akeley. 

During his tenure as president, Osborn grew the museum. He wrote a bold plan for expansion in 1910, and before he retired in 1933, he added three buildings and had four more in the works. His tenure weathered WWI and the Great Depression. Osborn was instrumental in supporting Carl Akeley’s vision for the African Hall, which did not open until 1936, just a year after Osborn died. 

Frank Chapman, the Birdman
B&C member 1926-1948

In the late-1800s, young kids wealthy enough to afford freetime and a shotgun took to the woods and shot things. Frank Chapman was one of those kids. He collected wings and feathers as a boy. He worked in a bank as an adult, but his love was still with the birds. 

He rose to document birds in his area before work, reporting his findings to the American Ornithologists Union. Because of his efforts, he crossed paths with fellow Boone and Crockett members C. Hart Merriam and George Bird Grinnell. 

Chapman, shown here in 1900, served in AMNH's department of ornithology, eventually becoming its first curator of birds.

In 1888, he left the banking world to assist Joel Asaph Allen at the AMNH. One of Chapman’s first assignments was to organize some 12,000 mounted bird specimens in the museum’s collection. Chapman improved upon the “habitat group” displays by adding a painted background, and this eventually evolved into impressive habitat dioramas.

According to author Stephen Quinn, Chapman started the tradition of traveling to sites depicted in each diorama to ensure authenticity in the display. He gave priority to areas in which bird populations were in peril. By creating public awareness, he was able to help save certain species. No species illustrates this better than the brown pelican. 


Chapman’s masterful diorama of Pelican Island was first displayed in 1902. Chapman used the display as a springboard to appeal to President Theodore Roosevelt to help preserve the island’s bird population that market hunters were slaughtering. Thanks to Chapman and numerous other Boone and Crockett Club members, Pelican Island was set aside as a refuge for the birds and off-limits to market hunters. Pelican Island would become the genesis of America’s National Wildlife Refuge System

Carl Akeley, the Father of Modern Taxidermy
B&C member 1912-1926

If there ever were a contest for the world’s most interesting man, Carl Akeley would make it to the final round. His animal specimens and contributions to the art of taxidermy culminated in one of the most spectacular exhibits in any museum today: the Akeley African Hall. He was a pioneer in the field of taxidermy. His passion for the field nearly killed him more than once. 

In 1896 in present-day Somalia, Akeley and a group of men were collecting animal specimens for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. He wounded a leopard, which then attacked him. Catching the leopard with his right hand, Akeley choked it with his left. His injuries from the attack, along with malaria, ended that trip. 

Beneath those scars left by a dying leopard was a true artist. At just 13, Akeley taught himself taxidermy. Three years later, he printed up business cards advertising his taxidermy business. As a young man, his unique skills earned him the job of stuffing Jumbo, the famous elephant from P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus, which was hit by a train in 1885. 

In 1886, Akeley applied for a job at the AMNH, but he wasn’t hired. He continued to refine his taxidermy skills in which he created the first-known habitat diorama—a family of muskrats still on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum. 

Visitors to the museum in 2022 can still revel in Akeley's mountain gorilla diorama. Photo courtesy of author. 

The habitat diorama is a true work of art consisting of a background mural, foreground habitat, and animal specimens. The mural is an artistic puzzle because it’s a curved surface—not flat, like most paintings. The painter must work with the curve to minimize perspective distortion. The habitat foreground is artistic genius in that rarely is anything what it seems. For instance, in Akeley’s famous mountain gorilla diorama, an estimated 7,000 fake leaves litter the jungle floor. And finally, there are the animal specimens themselves, and that is where Akeley’s true genius shines. 

Carl Akeley perfected a taxidermy technique known as the Akeley method. Before Akeley, animals were stuffed with rags and myriad else to fill an empty animal skin. For Akeley’s taxidermy, he used a multi-step process, which started in the field with precise measurements of the animal’s carcass. Once stateside, he would re-create the animal’s frame by using wood, metal, and sometimes the animal’s actual bones. Then he added clay to the form to produce life-like musculature, followed by a plaster mold from which a hollow papier-mache mannequin would be cast. The resulting figure is a perfect hollow, lightweight replica of the clay original. Onto this, the tanned skin would be attached, fitted, and sewn. 

Akeley working on one of his elephant specimens.

Akeley’s Hall of African Mammals at the AMNH greets visitors with 28 habitat dioramas, which include eight elephants poised as if to charge. For the last 17 years of his life, the Hall of African Mammals was his single focus. Akeley didn’t live to see the hall open to the public in 1936, ten years after his death, but his legacy continues today, as roughly five million people pass through his namesake hall every year. 

Roy Chapman Andrews, a Real-life Indiana Jones
B&C member 1923-1960

Andrews is best known for his museum-sponsored fossil-hunting expeditions to central Asia in the 1920s, but he didn’t begin his career at the museum with such flair. He started by mopping floors in the taxidermy department in 1906. He would eventually prove his worth and serve as museum director from 1935-1946. 

Andrews holding dinosaur eggs found during a 1945 expedition. At right, a Velociraptor fossil from the AMNH. The carnivorous dinosaur was discovered on one of Andrews'  Mongolian expeditions in the 1920s.

Like Chapman and Akeley, Andrews entertained himself with taxidermy, first as a child, then as an adult. This developed into a desire to work at the AMNH, where he got his foot in the door as a janitor. That was all it took for Andrews. He joined expeditions to the East Indies to collect specimens for the museum. By 1916, he was leading his own expeditions through China. 

By the 1920s, Chapman was a bona fide explorer of exotic lands. He led five expeditions to Mongolia and shipped tens of thousands of fossil specimens from the Gobi Desert to the museum. In 1923, he and his team, which included his first wife, Yvette Borup Andrews, found the first known dinosaur nest and eggs. The discovery was the first physical evidence that dinosaurs did not give birth to live young. The findings vaulted the museum into the headlines. 

In his first year as director, the museum’s Hayden Planetarium opened. Aside from that, little has been written about his time as director. In his resignation letter from 1946, he noted, “The problems confronting the institution, particularly those dealing with its future financial requirements, are not those for which I am particularly fitted, either by inclination, temperament or training.” He retired to Connecticut where he continued to write books about his adventures. When he died in 1960, he had written nearly two-dozen books and inspired countless explorers to embark upon their own adventures. He also provided inspiration for Harrison Ford’s character, Indiana Jones. 

James L. Clark and Others 

There were undoubtebly more than four influential Club members who were key to the success of the AMNH. One of those members was James L. Clark who studied taxidermy under Carl Akeley. When Akeley died on Mount Kenya in 1926, Clark continued his legacy and oversaw the opening of the Hall of North American Mammals and the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. 

An example of Clark's taxidermy process for creating a mounted specimen of an Asiatic lion in the 1930s.

As the diorama concept evolved, a number of B&C members and artists contributed their expertise to museum exhibits. Artist Carl Rungius contributed sketches for the fighting Alaska moose diorama and painted a rather controversial background. In the 1940s, Belmore Browne was part of a team that painted the backgrounds for the North American mammals.

Over the years, dioramas and taxidermy will inevitably fade and decay. Maintenance is constant. In 1980, the Club raised funds to refurbish the dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals. The project was completed in 1987 with the support of Club member Col. Francis T. Colby.

Learn more about the American Museum of Natural History.

If you plan to visit the AMNH, be prepared to spend the day if not a week. There are too many exhibits, dioramas, and Club history to digest it all in a couple of hours. With more than 40 permanent galleries and two million square feet, you’re going to need comfortable shoes.

About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.



PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal

Support Conservation

Support Hunting

Support Conservation

Support Education

"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt