In 1921, Carl Akeley embarked on an expedition to the Virunga Mountains of the then-Belgian Congo to collect gorillas and other Central African mammals for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Akeley had produced taxidermy dioramas of gorillas for several natural history museums in the United States, but those skins were sent by hunters, so he had never witnessed this animal in the wild.
At the time, the gorilla loomed large in the popular imagination because of its reputation for “savagery” and “sexual deviance.” This erroneous image of the animal formed due to both the lack of sound scientific studies and the tall tales of ferocity and lechery that European and North American big game hunters recounted.
Upon encountering the gorilla in the foothills of the mountains, Akeley managed to “collect” a number of ape specimens, shooting the animals and preparing the skins for transport to the museum. But the encounter changed the hardened hunter’s outlook, and he later wrote of the guilt he felt for what he had done.
It was a paradigm shift for Akeley, who abandoned shooting the gorilla with his hunting rifle and instead chose to be the first man to shoot the gorilla on film. His footage was later shown to fascinated audiences in the United States.
Akeley spent the rest of his life atoning for the gorillas he had killed by trying to change the negative stereotype the public held toward the ape and campaigning passionately for its conservation. His efforts eventually bore fruit when King Albert of Belgium was persuaded to designate the area a national park and declare gorilla hunting illegal.
Other than its enormous artistic, scientific, and conservation value, the ANHM’s gorilla diorama is important for one other notable and poignant reason. During Akeley’s fifth expedition to the Congo, he was struck by a strain of hemorrhagic fever and died at the age of 62. He was buried only a few miles from the spot of his fateful first encounter with the mountain gorillas.