This Mastodon is a Centerpiece of an Art Exhibition. Why?
by Alicia Ault/Smithsonianmag.com
It’s not what you’d expect from an art show. At the end of a long corridor, beyond a pulled-back heavy burgundy brocade curtain, a full-scale mastodon skeleton fills much of the rotunda-like space of the gallery. The fossil is the centerpiece of “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. The show was poised to open with much fanfare earlier this year just as the COVID-19 crisis shuttered the museum. Today the stately mastodon sits waiting for crowds to return. In the meantime, viewers can go on a virtual tour of the show through a new video put together by the museum’s senior curator, Eleanor Jones Harvey.
For Harvey, the 11-foot tall, 20-foot long elephant ancestor is the uber statement on what polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) meant to the American politicians, scientists, artists and writers who fawned over him during his brief six-week visit to the United States in 1804, and who became a part of his global network of admirers for a huge chunk of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.