The taxidermist, artist, inventor, explorer, and conservationist Carl Akeley (1864-1926), who served as the first chief taxidermist of The Field Museum of Natural History from 1896 to 1909, invented the “pancake” movie camera that was portable, rotatable, and maneuverable to document wildlife and patented it in 1915. Soon it was used alike by filmmakers in Hollywood, newsreel companies, and the War Department, which mounted them on U.S. Army warplanes that flew over the battlefields of the First Great World War. The temporary exhibit Mr. Akeley’s Movie Camera opened at The Field Museum on Friday, July 20, 2018 and will run through March of 2019. It is covered by Basic Admission (general admission). This compliments multiple permanent exhibits Akeley taxidermied or sculpted.
Akeley was a larger-than-life figure who once fought off a leopard with his bare hands. “This exhibition provides a fascinating peek into the life and pursuits of this workaholic genius and the role he played in teaching the world about nature,” stated Dr. Mark Alvey, The Field Museum’s content advisor for the exhibit. “The movie camera Akeley invented to film animals in the wild turned out to be one of his most important contributions to science, and to how we all see and understand the natural world.”
The camera Akeley invented was just one of the ways that he revolutionized artists’ ability to capture the natural world. He made a name for himself as the “father of modern taxidermy,” with his creation of lifelike representations of animals by mounting skins onto sculpted forms (like one sees in hunting trophies). After trying to film a lion hunt with a traditional camera, Akeley decided to develop his own that could be transported easily outdoors, smoothly focus and pan, shoot in low light, and be quickly reloaded with film stock to capture as much as possible in the thick of action. Due to its round appearance, it was soon dubbed the Akeley “pancake” camera.
The Field Museum stated, “The newly-developed camera was portable, rotatable, and easy to maneuver—the GoPro of the early 1900s. In an unexpected turn of events, the camera was used by the military for aerial reconnaissance during World War I. After the military gave up exclusive rights, newsreel companies and the film industry in Hollywood picked up the technology and used it to film action sequences and aerial footage in early blockbusters.”
The exhibit features a pristine example of an original Akeley motion picture camera on its tripod, along with original 1928 footage taken by Akeley cameras showing lion cubs, elephant families, and herds of zebras. To showcase his artistry, Akeley’s bronze sculptures of elephants, a lion, and a buffalo will be on display, as well as a mountain-dwelling sheep taxidermied by Akeley himself.
“Although they’re old-school technology, the public’s love for dioramas has never died; over the past few years, interest in taxidermy and dioramas has really grown among artists and scholars, and there has been a renaissance of interest in Akeley in particular,” stated Dr. Alvey. “I think people will really enjoy learning about this artist and naturalist who made such a big impact on how we understand and appreciate nature today.”
Figure 1 Credit: © John Weinstein, The Field Museum Caption: Close-up of a movie camera invented and patented in 1915 by Carl Akeley. Nicknamed the “pancake camera” because of its flat round profile, it was a highly maneuverable and portable device designed to capture footage of animals in the wild.
Figure 2 Credit: © John Weinstein, The Field Museum Caption: An Akeley motion picture camera, invented and patented in 1915 by Carl Akeley. Nicknamed the “pancake camera” because of its flat round profile, it was a highly maneuverable and portable device designed to capture footage of animals in the wild.
Figure 3 Credit: © John Weinstein, The Field Museum Caption: This is an open Akeley “pancake” camera.
Figure 4 Credit: © John Weinstein, The Field Museum Caption: This is a close-up of an Akeley “pancake” camera.
Figure 5 Credit: Field Museum, Z93018 Caption: An Akeley motion picture camera was used during The Field Museum’s 1928-29 Crane Pacific Expedition. Explorer Karl Schmidt holds a green iguana, Sidney Shurcliff operates the Akeley camera.
Figure 6 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: Carl Akeley solidified his reputation with the Four Seasons at The Field Museum.
Figure 7 Credit: Field Museum, GN78606 Caption: This is a vintage photograph of Akeley’s African Elephant Group being cleaned.
Figure 8 Photo Credit: © The Field Museum of Natural History Caption: This is a southward view of Stanley Field Hall, as it looked in 1948, with the staircases and Henry Hering’s statues visible in the deep background, a crowd in front of Akeley’s African Elephant Group in the center, and a penicillin exhibit in a glass in the foreground.
Figure 9 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: In addition to his taxidermy work on the Main Level of The Field Museum, Akeley also sculpted, in 1925, the bronze sculpture group Lion Spearing , which is on display on the Ground Level. Richard T. Crane, Jr. presented the sculptural group to The Field Museum.
Figure 10 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: The lion hunt Akeley depicted was inspired by a real Nandi lion-hunt he witnessed on safari in 1911.
 He also invented shotcrete guns (which are now used to make swimming pools) to repair the walls of the Palace of Fine Arts, the only exhibition hall left standing in Jackson Park from the World’s Columbian Exposition‘s White City fairgrounds, which subsequently housed The Field Museum from 1893 to 1920 and now houses the Museum of Science and Industry.