Upon hearing that Knut’s body may be stuffed and put on display in Berlin’s natural history museum, a sadly appropriate end for a celebrity animal, I wondered about other museum animals well-known before their deaths.
Guy the Gorilla (a western lowland gorilla) was a celebrity resident of the London Zoo from his arrival–sucking adorably on a baby bottle–in 1947 until his 1978 death. He had come to London by way of the Paris Zoo, whose field workers had captured the newborn gorilla in West Africa. Londoners watched with enchantment as the baby ape explored its new world. As he grew, Guy’s body became formidable while his antics remained childlike. He reportedly took birds into his hands, gently examining them before letting them free.
When he died, his body was stuffed and mounted and, in November 1982, put on display at the city’s Natural History Museum. A few years later, curators removed him from public view. In October 2006, the museum loaned the gorilla to the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, England where he was displayed as part of an exhibit called “Weird and Wonderful.” I wonder which category his life best fits.
Now, Guy returns to the Natural History Museum; he is among one hundred specimens in an exhibit called “Sexual Nature.” The museum commented on its re-exhibition of the icon, saying he is a “superb specimen of masculinity” (despite his failed attempts to breed with a female zoo gorilla). Visitors to the exhibit, it seems, are supposed to view his body not as “Guy the Gorilla,” but as a fine example of a dominant male gorilla.
Are we to forget the individual animal’s past and imagine him as something he was not–a wild, virile gorilla? Is this somehow a better afterlife for Guy–to serve as an icon not of human-animal relationships, but of gorillas in the wild?
“Sexual Nature,” at the London Natural History Museum, opened February 11, 2011 and remains on display until October 2, 2011. Go see Guy and tell me what you think!