Today, visitors to Smithsonian sites in Washington, DC can hardly miss the message of conservation. From the National Zoo to the National Museum of Natural History, visitors learn about the impact of humans on the natural world, whether through industrialization, overhunting, pollution, or a myriad of other factors. However, visitors might be surprised that the Smithsonian has been communicating this message to the public for over 125 years.
In 1888, William Temple Hornaday was the chief taxidermist for the Smithsonian U.S. National Museum. In this role, he faced the challenge of creating a special display for Cincinnati’s 1888 Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States. The exposition would be a grand affair held to celebrate the anniversary of the opening of the Northwest Territory to Euro-American settlement. A wide array of attractions vied for attention, ranging from live concerts, brewery tours, and canal rides. In the government display building, sandwiched between the exhibits on wide-ranging systematic mammal exhibit and the bird exhibit, sat the 800 square foot "Extermination Series" that Hornaday created for the exposition.
The “Extermination Series” drew on Hornaday’s eye-opening experience acquiring skins to taxidermy and display for the National Museum. During a collecting expedition to the American West in late 1886, Hornaday witnessed the seeming extinction of the American bison. In Montana, formerly rich bison country, he collected several specimens of the territory’s last remaining bison. He reported to Secretary of the Smithsonian Spencer Baird that his "'haul' of specimens could not be equaled again in Montana by anybody, no matter what their resources for the reason that the buffalo are not there. We killed very nearly all we saw and I am confident there are not over thirty-head remaining in Montana, all told. By this time next year the cowboys will have destroyed about all of this remnant. We got in our Exploration just in the nick of time." Along with the specimens, Hornaday returned to Washington with a galvanized determination to conserve the remaining American bison.
The Ohio Valley and Central States Centennial Exposition gave Hornaday an opportunity to spread his urgent message. The display would highlight the state of wildlife in the United States. For the centerpiece, Hornaday created a model of a bison skeleton desiccating on the Great Plains, replete with real Montana sod. The skeleton he used came from his Montana collecting trip. “[I]n a very few years,” he wrote in the description, “not even a bleaching bone will remain above ground to tell the story of the millions that have been utterly destroyed by the senseless, heartless, and wasteful greed of man.” A map showed the bison’s historic range and their much smaller range in 1888.
While bison took center stage in the display, Hornaday was also concerned about the loss of other species such as deer, bears, and mountain goats. Stuffed specimens of these threatened species line one edge of the exhibit. In the rear of the exhibit, Hornaday put up a stack of goat skins procured from the Rocky Mountains, destined for sale as men's vests. Nearby, a display showed the ever-higher powered rifles used to hunt animals on the Great Plains. Throughout the exhibit, Hornaday emphasized human greed and industrialization as the reason behind the distressing reduction of North American mammals.
Today, William Temple Hornaday is most famous as the founder of the Bronx Zoo, the author of the Extermination of the American Bison Report, and as a major player in bison conservation. Though largely forgotten today, the Extermination Series display reveals the deep historical roots of the Smithsonian Institution’s conservation education programs.
Taxidermist Turned Conserationist: The Man that Saved the Bison, The Castle of Curiosities
William Temple Hornaday: Saving the American Bison, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Protecting Wildlife in Our National Parks: William Temple Hornaday and the American Bison, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Facebook Live: Uncovering an Archival Mystery, Smithsonian Institution Archives