The Mastodon in the Museum
The great hall of the Maryland Historical Society is graced with the presence of a mastodon—a replica of a large creature related to the elephant that inhabited North America 10,000 years ago. It is a re-creation of the one assembled by famed artist, scientist, and inventor Charles Willson Peale. By 1786, the Maryland native adopted Philadelphia as his new home and continued working on his passion: the creation of a gallery that displayed both art and natural wonders. When a friend sent him a news clipping in 1801 regarding large bones found in a morass on a farm in New York, it was only natural that he investigate. His trip to see the bones became the first scientific expedition in the newly formed United States.
Charles Willson Peale worked methodically making every attempt to preserve the bones. His methods became the basis of the new sciences of paleontology, zoology, and museum studies. Previously, when objects were found buried, they were dug up in a haphazard manner leading to deterioration and/or destruction of the object.
Peale and his team of 35 paid workers carefully dug around the bones, pulling them out of the water and mud. When the water got too deep, he created a hand-operated bucket and wheel system to empty the pit allowing the men to continue to dig. Peale and one of his sons, Rembrandt, sketched and did extensive research on the bones during the excavation.
While the scientific and historic accomplishments of the excavation were important to Peale, his main objective was to uncover all of the bones so he could reassemble the skeleton and exhibit it in his museum. It would be the second skeleton ever reassembled. (A megatherium—an enormous ground sloth—was assembled in Madrid in the 1790s). Prior to his arrival at the site, some local men had retrieved a few bones which Peale was able to negotiate for eventual purchase. Peale described his discussion with the owner of the farm, Mr. Masten, in his diary remarking, “…compleating the Skelleton was an object of vast magnitude with me….”
The excavation project drew large crowds of people, with many onlookers turning up to watch the dig to see the bones and the sketches. Peale wrote in his diary from the excavation, “It was a pleasing circumstances to me, that every body seemed rejoiced that the bones had fallen into my hands….” He corresponded with his friend Thomas Jefferson during and after the excavation. Peale also had financial support from the American Philosophical Society.
A few people however, were not excited. A Dr. Hosack of New York told Peale that the bones should remain in the state of New York, to which Peale replied, “…give me sufficient encouragement and I would bring them & the Museum also to New York. I was a citizen of the World and would go to that place which would give me most incouragement to my favorite Science.” The following year, Joseph Briggs of Philadelphia wrote to his brother Isaac of Sharon, Maryland in frustration over Peale’s preoccupation with the mastodon. Briggs had contracted Peale—who had several patents out for more efficient cooking designs—to redesign his kitchen. Briggs wrote, “As soon as thy letter containing the draught and description of thy kitchen and cooking utensils came to hand, I waited on C. W. Peale and found him deeply engaged in putting together the bones of the Mammoth, which has occupied all his attention until a few weeks ago….”
The mastodon was eventually assembled and displayed at Peale’s Philadelphia Museum on December 24, 1801. The exhibit proved extremely popular. Peale’s expenses for the excavation were $2000; he was able to recoup $1831 in 1802 from charging an extra 50 cents for visitors to see the only the mastodon, not the rest of the museum. By 1811, the mastodon exhibition had grossed $7000. In 1806, Peale memorialized his efforts of the excavation in his painting The Exhumation of the Mastodon. This famous work features Peale standing by the pit of bones with his family by his side. He is holding one of his sketches of the bones. The bucket and water wheel is featured prominently.
On August 15, 1814 the mastodon appeared at the new Baltimore Museum, operated by Rembrandt Peale. Rembrandt operated the museum from 1814 to 1822 when he decided to return his focus to painting. He asked his brother Rubens to preside over the institution. A New York branch of the Museum later opened.
Peale actually discovered enough bones to reassemble two mastodons. The first mastodon can be found in Hessisches Landesmuseum in Germany. The mastodon at the Baltimore Museum was eventually dismantled and dispersed, with some of the bones going to the Smithsonian. These were returned to the Peale Museum in 1954. From December 1, 1990 through June 30, 1992, a fiberglass reproduction of the mastodon reprised its central role at the Peale Museum in Baltimore for the exhibition, “Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastodons: The Evolution of the American Museum.” The exhibition recreated the Peale Museum of the early 1800s with gas-light fixtures, curiosities, and of course, the mastodon.
In 1997, the Maryland Historical Society obtained the replica skeleton, The Exhumation of the Mastodon, and the original bones when the Baltimore City Life Museum closed. Today, visitors can see the mastodon in all its glory on the first floor of the MdHS museum. The painting, The Exhumation of the Mastodon, and excavated bones are also on display. (Debbie Harner)
Sources and further reading:
The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, Vol. 2, Part 1: Charles Willson Peale: The Artist as Museum Keeper, 1791-1810. Ed. Lillian B. Miller, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastodons: The Emergence of the American Museum. Ed. William T. Alderson, Washington DC: American Association of Museums. 1992.
MS 147 Briggs Stabler Collection, Box 1 Correspondence from Joseph Briggs to Isaac Briggs, March 17, 1802. MdHS Special Collections Department.