WASHINGTON _ He's dusted, grander and ready.
The famous stuffed African elephant – unofficially nicknamed “Henry” – comes out of captivity Friday at the National Museum of Natural History to do what he does best: Greet the seven million visitors who come to the museum each year.
“When people walk into a museum of natural history they don't know exactly what to expect,” said Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History. “But they expect something big.”
For generations of museum-goers, the elephant has been that something big. Since 1959, he's dominated the museum's rotunda. From his shoulders to his toes, he measures 13 feet and two inches tall. He's posed in mid-stride, trunk stretched and raised, tusks thrust out – an imposing figure that passersby simply couldn't ignore.
But for nearly a year, he's been hidden by moss-colored walls as workers from the Smithsonian Institution spruced him up and built him a new home. With part of a $20 million donation, the museum gave him a taller platform, moved him away from the rotunda's center, added a sound track and video of elephants and made his surroundings into a tiny slice of Africa.
“We wanted to put the elephant in a habitat reflective of where he came from,” said Jill Johnson, exhibit developer. Since 1976, the elephant stood on an oval platform about three feet off the ground surrounded by a few patches of grass collected from North America – not Africa.
The project was massive, said Johnson. Planning took about a year and construction nearly another. More than 100 people brought their expertise to the tasks. Among them were model makers, entomologists, anthropologists, botanists, designers, taxidermists – even a dung beetle specialist.
Some meticulously hand-crafted and painted brown dung beetles, tiny yellow African butterflies, a beige-and-chocolate puff adder. Others sculpted metal tree branches. Some planted real African grass blades, after coating them with flame retardant chemicals and trying to set them on fire.
Paul Rhymer, a Smithsonian taxidermist, had some of the oddest jobs. He put the finishing touches on the elephant by carefully dusting him without damaging his “beaded and rough texture.”
Rhymer and other Smithsonian workers trekked to Africa where the elephant was killed to take pictures and collect samples of plants and insects to make molds for the exhibit. And on a hot summer day, he, colleague Carol Reuter and a museum volunteer made a safari to the National Zoo. Their mission: To collect elephant dung.
They filled three large, white plastic buckets with elephant feces to use as models for the fake elephant droppings in the new exhibit. “It's impressive,” Reuter said, “how large one elephant's dung pile is.”
Throughout the project, onlookers could peer down from the second and third floors to watch the progress. Some evidently wanted to help. They pitched pennies – 123 of them – into the work site.
In the last week before the elephant's unveiling, employees from the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central hustled round the clock to insure that his home is ready Friday morning. Visitors could watch through little plexiglass windows in the walls enclosing the project. On the walls, signs warned “Please Do Not Tap On Glass – Animals At Work.”
One of them, model maker Carolyn Thome put last minute touches to the faux landscape. Wearing surgical gloves, she stirred sand and epoxy in a small paper cup. She spread a thin layer of the goo on a board. She picked up a mold that looked like a dog's paw. She pressed it into the sticky sand. She was making jackal prints.
That morning, the curator had demanded more jackal tracks, said Thome. “I love,” she added with a grin, “getting paid to do this.”
It's unclear exactly when the elephant met his fate. But stuffed and tanned, the elephant was donated to the museum in 1959 by the hunter who killed him, say museum officials.
The new setting will make his role in the museum even bigger, said officials. With the addition of a video and informational plaques, the elephant now also becomes an educational tool.
All to the better for visitors, says museum director Fri. “The elephant,” said Fri, “is something that everybody notices and remembers.”