Greenpoint does not seem like a very likely place to have a tradition of taxidermy, but this is an area that is always full of surprises and it turns out that Greenpoint made a major contribution to taxidermy.
Taxidermy is defined as the art of preparing and preserving the skins of animals and of stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form. One of the finest practitioners of this art is Amber Maykut of Brooklyn Taxidermy (681 Morgan Avenue). Amber took lessons from George Dante and John Bollman, taxidermists for NYC’s American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian.
At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Amber interned in the special exhibitions/fabrication department and studied the art of the diorama under Tom Doncourt. She also became certified in bird and mammal taxidermy. Brooklyn Taxidermy has been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian, The LA Times, VICE Magazine, National Geographic, New York Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Time Out NY, and many other publications, but Amber is neither the first nor the most famous, local taxidermist.
Greenpoint’s legendary taxidermist John Rowley created many of the great dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and wrote two of the most important texts about Taxidermy.
I came across Rowley’s story in an old edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s Old Timers Recollection series in which Greenpointer Alfred Preston in February of 1940 recalled growing up with Rowley. Information on Rowley’s youth in Greenpoint is sketchy, but it appears he was born in 1862 and was largely self-educated.
Taxidermy began to establish itself as a science and art form in the 1880s just as Rowley was reaching adulthood and New York’s American Museum of Natural History was being founded. One can surmise that he visited the museum, which first opened in 1871, as a boy and like millions of other children, was fascinated by the animals he saw there, but the state of taxidermy was primitive then. Animals were simply stuffed and they were not exhibited in the lifelike dioramas that have enthralled millions of visitors for decades, so creating realistic dioramas was one of the important early tasks of the museum.
The museum instantly became hugely popular, but there was still a desperate need for people who could take taxidermy and diorama building to a much higher, more lifelike level. Rowley is one of the fathers of those amazing dioramas at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History—those lifelike re-creations of the natural world, in which the taxidermied specimens almost seem to breathe and the painted horizons seem to stretch for mile.
Old Time Greenpointer Preston makes the doubtful claim that Rowley was the first taxidermist to mount animals in natural poses and to exhibit them in lifelike natural settings that mimicked the animal’s natural habitats, but he was surely one of the first. The museum hired a group of taxidermists in the 1880s who had the huge task of creating a number of realistic dioramas, starting with birds and small mammals.
To create the exhibit of small mammals and birds common within a fifty-mile radius from New York City, the museum mounted hunting parties to catch 54 bird groups, a muskrat, an opossum, and a woodchuck. Soon, the taxidermy department was also honing their skills on larger mammals. The museum hired Rowley in 1889, just as they were creating an exhibit on bison. Rowley and other staff from the museum traveled to Oklahoma where they presumably shot the bison and sent them back to New York to be mounted. He quickly proved to be a talented taxidermist with an amazing eye for detail and a talent for preserving animal hides. The bison became extremely popular, drawing large crowds.
His boss died suddenly and Rowley took over the taxidermy department. Rowley and his team proved prolific. Some of his standout work from this time was a central moose group depicting a second-growth forest in New Brunswick with twenty-two thousand artificial leaves. Rowley’s team created an elk and Virginia deer display that were both described in the 1904 General Guide to the Museum as examples of extremely lifelike modeling. Other examples of North American mammals that featured during Rowley’s tenure were: an otter, wildcat, lynx, opossum, raccoon, and red and grey foxes. Rowley, in addition to the mammals, supplied bird mounts for Frank Chapman in the North American Bird Hall.
In 1898, Rowley wrote a book on Taxidermy that more than a century later is still something of a bible in the field. Rowley argued that taxidermy uses the same methods as used in the fine arts of sculpture and painting and that taxidermy should no longer be considered a trade, but an art. The stunning meticulous attention to the smallest details in recreating natural scenes certainly qualified Rowley as an artist. Some of the dioramas he and his team built even took an entire year to create!
By 1903, Rowley moved to California lured by higher pay to assist in building Stanford University’s biological museum and later take a position at the California Academy of Sciences. Many of his New York dioramas lasted a half-century before they were replaced in the 1940s. Many of them ended up in Yale’s Peabody Museum where they can still be seen today.
According to Preston, Rowley was involved in preserving one of the most famous animals ever in American history. P.T. Barnum caused a furor and made a fortune by bringing Jumbo the elephant to America. The huge mammal toured the country until he was killed in an accident. Barnum gave the carcass to the New York museum where Rowley and his team mounted it.
Sadly, it’s difficult to find more detailed information about Rowley’s life and work. We know that he traveled the world to visit the habitats of the animals he would create displays for. I could not find out when Rowley died, but his legacy lives on. Rowley was instrumental in the development of museum dioramas just as those ideas were starting to coalesce. He trained two of the people who are considered fathers in the field of museum dioramas: Carl Akeley and James L. Clark. His legacy is still visible in the amazing displays at the American Museum of Natural History today.