Wooden tusks and muscles of straw: The Darwin Museum’s stuffed elephants

Wooden tusks and muscles of straw: The Darwin Museum’s stuffed elephants
The wonders of taxidermy, royal sports and Anna Akhmatova’s childhood favourite. All about the life and death of the elephants you probably saw at the Darwin Museum.

Stuffed African and Indian elephants take up the central area in The Diversity of Life on Earth display in the main room of the Darwin Museum. They are impossible to miss – the two huge beasts are the first thing visitors to the Savannah area see. These exhibits are not only the largest in the collection, but also the most interesting: they can be used to study the history of Russian taxidermy.

Mos.ru and the Mosgortour agency prepared information on how these elephants ended up in the museum's collection and what they were known for in life.

The African elephant

The African elephant is the first giant in the collection at the Darwin Museum, and the most long-awaited. The founder and first director of the museum, scientist and taxidermist Alexander Kohts had to spend 10 years collecting all the required permits to finally get hold on the cherished hide of the deceased mammal.

In the autumn of 1916, the African elephant, the pride of Nicholas II’s menagerie in Tsarskoye Selo was to be transported to Moscow. On the way over the elephant caught a cold and died. But a royal elephant is a royal elephant, and what was left of it had to be preserved. The hide alone weighed more than a ton. It was cut into three parts and pickled in barrels.

Anna Akhmatova's favorite
Incidentally, as it turned out recently, this African elephant was also a favourite of young Anna Akhmatova, and later of her son Leo, as visitors could admire the royal elephant at Tsarskoye Selo. Akhmatova was taken to see the elephant when she was a child, historian Mikhail Budyko wrote. Later the poetess walked around Tsarskoye Selo with her son who was also delighted with the imperial pet.

In 1927, Alexander Kohts finally got permission, and the hide, together with the surviving skull and tusks, was at his complete disposal. The only taxidermist available in the museum was co-founder Filipp Fedulov. The elephant later turned out to be his best work.

The two elephants. Late 1930s. Photo from the Darwin Museum collection

Work on Nicholas II’s stuffed African elephant took five months; the scientists faced with a number of difficulties over that period. Decades of storage in a salt barrel made the skin stiff. To facilitate the taxidermist’s work, the hide was sent to a facility where it was softened and the thickness was reduced from five centimetres to three. Yet, that was not enough to create a quality mount. Fedulov continued to improve the hide himself. Painstakingly and persistently he shaved off layers of the skin for several months until he achieved a thickness of one centimeter.

A sketch of the future mount was being created at the same time by yet another co-founder of the museum, artist Vasily Vatagin. He too faced a difficult task – the size and physiological characteristics of these elephants were poorly studied then. Vatagin had no living elephant to look at, and had to be guided by descriptions in related literature.

Furthermore, the sketch was not on paper – it was a mural. Vatagin drew a full size silhouette of a trumpeting elephant in the main room. After this, they made a wooden frame and a stand. The frame for the elephant’s legs was made of iron rod, and its ribs were made of thick wire. It was decided to make the animal’s muscles from straw, and it took two full carts full.

In taxidermy, they never use the actual skull for a mount, so Vatagin made a full size elephant skull model. The actual tusks were too heavy as well, so they had to be replicated in wood. The last step was the modeling of the skin, which was pulled over the frame. It had to be kept wet for some time, as required for the technical process; this was done with the help of wet towels.

Ivan the Terrible’s Elephant
The tradition of giving elephants to Russian tsars began with Ivan the Terrible, who received an animal from the Persian shah. The living gift arrived in Moscow on foot along with its driver. The outlandish animal became a highlight of court festivities. At one feast, the elephant became frightened, lifted its trunk, and trumpeted loudly directly into the face of the sovereign so strongly that Ivan the Terrible’s hat flew off his head. For such disrespectful behavior, the elephant, along with its driver, was sent into exile in Gorodets. There the Persian subject died, and the elephant who was sincerely attached to him never left the man’s grave; it refused to eat and behaved aggressively. The story had a sad ending: the tsar ordered the elephant to be shot.

Jin-Dau, the female Indian Elephant

The second pride of the Savannah display is the stuffed Indian elephant. During her life, she was called Jin-Dau, which in Sanskrit means beautiful woman.

Shortly before 1917, the Afghan emir sent six Indian elephants as a gift to the emir of Bukhara. During the 1917 revolution, five of the elephants were killed. Only Jin-Dau survived, and turned out to be very hard-working. During the Civil War, the beautiful woman pulled cannons. Later, in Bukhara, she worked for the benefit of the city – rammed the roads with a roller and uprooted trees.

After the collapse of the Bukhara emirate, the elephant was transported to Moscow. She deliberately broke the specially built travelling stall, and was transported by rail on an open platform. The elephant remained calm for the whole trip. The journey continued smoothly except for one incident. One day, Jin-Dau snatched a young man from the crowd and threw him into the bushes. Later it turned out that she was defending himself - he had pricked the elephant’s trunk.

In early July 1924, Jin-Dau arrived in Moscow. Walking with her driver on her neck, she travelled to the zoo. Although the elephant arrived at 3 o'clock in the morning, crowds gathered to meet her.

The two elephants. Late 1930s. Photo from the Darwin Museum collection

In 1920-1930, Jin-Dau was the most popular inhabitant at the Moscow Zoo where she lived her last 12 years. She was considered one of the biggest representatives of her species as she weighed about four tons. Jin-Dau died in 1936 at the age of 54.

Taxidermist Philip Fedulov made the Indian elephant mount as well. This time he treated the skin and built the frame himself. Artist Vatagin again drew a sketch on the wall. Only this time it was not trumpeting, just walking.

There were more problems, this time with the straw muscles. By then, wheat crops were being processed mechanically; with the new method, the straw was soaked and was no longer suitable for use in a mount. Therefore, it was decided to use wood shavings and interlay them with canvases. The work on the second elephant mount took six months and was finished in 1937.

Photo from the Darwin Museum collection

The elephants’ old secrets

In 1994 the museum moved to a new building on Vavilova Street. And it turned out that the elephants, assembled on the spot, were too big to pass through the doors or windows of either the old building or the new one. Door and window assemblies had to be dismantled. To move the huge beasts through the city, they worked out a special route that would not intersect with the trolleybus routes (the elephants would catch on the low-hanging wires).

In 2017 it turned out that all this trouble could have been avoided. The Darwin Museum staff digitised about 10,000 negatives from the photo archive for the museum’s 110th anniversary. Some of the images show that Fedulov and Vatagin foresaw a possible move and made the stuffed animals in a way that that they could be disassembled and the reassembled. Now we know.