A Mastodon in Mount Vernon
Original Bones On Display Along With Charles Willson Peale's Seminal Painting
WHEN: on view indefinitely
WHERE: Maryland Historical Society (201 W. Monument Street, Baltimore, MD 21201
A new installation at the Maryland Historical Society illustrates Maryland's instrumental role in the natural sciences. Standing 10 feet tall by 18 feet long, a replica American mastodon (Mammut americanum) fills one section of the museum's Four Centuries of Maryland History gallery.
Beside the mastodon are cases displaying bones from the original animal that painter Charles Willson Peale unearthed in 1801, along with his seminal painting, "Exhumation of the Mastodon."
"Seeing the reassembled mastodon skeleton, a casting from an original, paired with the original bones and Peale's remarkable painting has been an installation we have hoped to accomplish for many years and it is thrilling to see this in our galleries," says Alexandra Deutsch, Chief Curator. Peale's mastodon was the first prehistoric animal skeleton ever assembled and exhibited in a public museum, beginning a tradition that has thrilled children and adults ever since. (Above: MdHS Installation, digital photograph by James Singewald, 2015)
Charles Willson Peale and His Discovery
"Exhumation of the Mastodon," Charles Willson Peale, 1806-1808, MdHS, MA5911
Charles Willson Peale was born on Kent Island, Maryland, in 1741. Peale was Maryland's preeminent "renaissance man" known best for his portrait paintings of significant Americans. But he was also a revolutionary soldier, a naturalist, a museum founder, and father to seventeen children - many of whom furthered his scientific and artistic legacy.
In 1801, with a loan from the American Philosophical Society and equipped by the Army and Navy, Peale led a mission to scientifically excavate and reconstruct two mastodon skeletons found in the Hudson River Valley of New York. "Peale was the first person to orchestrate this sort of scientific expedition," Paul Rubenson says. "When you think dinosaur bones in museums, that was his idea." (Although the mastodon was actually a mammal.)
Peale captured the undertaking in his expressive and complex painting, Exhumation of the Mastodon, which shows the project's natural challenges and Peale's scientific leadership. "You see the adverse conditions Peale and his team were up against," Rubenson continues, "There is a thunderstorm in the background. People are up to their waist in water. Peale himself designed the water wheel behind them, which was meant to keep the ground dry. It's a huge story."
Peale completed the painting five years later. The Washington Post has called the painting 'a classic American mix of art, public relations, self-promotion and pure intellectual exuberance.' Doreen Bolger, formerly Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art called the painting her 'favorite work of Baltimore Art.'
The American Mastodon
The American Mastodon was a prehistoric member of the elephant family. It existed alongside Native Americans and roamed the continent in herds until about 10,000 years ago, when it became extinct.
Peale's first mastodon went to his museum in Philadelphia and now resides in Darmstadt, Germany; the second came to his son Rembrandt Peale's museum here in Baltimore. The Baltimore skeleton was eventually dipersed and passed through many hands. In 1954, the Smithsonian Institution returned the remaining bones to Baltimore's Peale Museum, which are currently on display.
Baltimore's Peale Museum built the replica skeleton for its groundbreaking 1992 exhibit Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastodons: the Emergence of the American Museum, which recreated Peale's original museum installation. Russell Graham of the Illinois State Museum cast the fiberglass bones from mid-western mastodon examples in that museum's collection. The mastodon group came into the collections of the Maryland Historical Society when it merged with the Baltimore City Life Museums in 1997.
Reconstructing the Mastodon
The mastodon skeleton is surprisingly lightweight; weighing up to 1,000 pounds, it is comprised of hundreds of bones joined together in 10 composite sections. "Putting it up was a challenge," Rubenson says, as its platform height was too tall to fit into the exhibition space. Rubenson and a team of craftsmen assembled the mastodon by hand. They needed to re-engineer the entire base of the animal to make it shorter, while remaining stable. "The cosmetic platform had to be taken apart, board by board." He estimates the entire project took six weeks to complete.
About The Maryland Historical Society
Founded in 1844, The Maryland Historical Society Museum and Library occupies an entire city block in the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore. The society's mission is to "collect, preserve, and interpret the objects and materials that reflect Maryland's diverse cultural heritage." The Society is home to the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner and publishes a quarterly titled "Maryland Historical Magazine." Visit www.mdhs.org.