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“White Rhino for Roosevelt,” New York Times, January 15, 1910

“White Rhino for Roosevelt,” New York Times, January 15, 1910

The mammals collected on the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition of 1909-10, like this square-lipped or white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), became some of the most popular exhibits in the new National Museum building, now the National Museum of Natural History. Unveiled to the public in 1913, they remained on exhibit for most of the twentieth century. Today only one Roosevelt specimen, this white rhino, is still on public display.

Theodore Roosevelt collected the white rhinos in the Lado Enclave region of central Africa, on the west bank of the upper Nile, in what was then Belgian-controlled Congo. A few months after Roosevelt’s visit, the region became a province of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. News of the hunt made the New York Times. The Northern White Rhino, which was on the brink of extinction at the time of Roosevelt’s hunt, is now extinct in the wild and survives only in captivity.


The Roosevelt Mammals on Exhibit

If we trace the history of the Roosevelt specimens over the last 100 years, we can see how ideas about museum display and education have changed. Follow the rhinoceros, lions, giraffes and others through time:

Rhinoceros from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition, c. 1915
Rhinoceros from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition, 1915. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Roosevelt Rhinoceros after the 1959 renovation and modernization of the Mammals Hall.
Roosevelt Rhinoceros after the 1959 renovation and modernization of the Mammals Hall. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Northern White Rhino, the only Roosevelt specimen still on display, in the new Kenneth Behring Family Hall of Mammals, 2010
The Northern White Rhino, the only Roosevelt specimen still on display, in the new Kenneth Behring Family Hall of Mammals. Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Insitution, 2010

The new Museum building provided the Smithsonian’s taxidermists with a state-of-the-art facility. Previously they had worked in a shed behind the original Castle building across the Mall. One of the first projects undertaken in their new quarters was the preparation of the Roosevelt specimens.

Taxidermist at work on Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition Specimens, with the East African Lions in the background, 1911
Taxidermist at work on Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition Specimens, with the East African Lions in the background, c. 1911. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Taxidermist at work on Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition Specimens, with the East African Lions in the foreground, 1911.

Taxidermist at work on Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition Specimens, with the East African Lions in the foreground, c. 1911. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Roosevelt animals were displayed together at the end of the Mammals Hall, in a special section. They were arranged in family groups, with naturalistic environments featuring vegetation and soil appropriate to the location. The tall glass exhibit cases allowed visitors to examine the specimens from all four sides. One of the most striking exhibits was the family group of East African Lions at a watering hole: three adults with two playful cubs.

Plan of the first floor of the new U.S. National Museum, from a 1936 Smithsonian guidebook, showing the Roosevelt specimens.
Plan of the first floor of the new U.S. National Museum, from a 1936 Smithsonian guidebook, showing the Roosevelt specimens. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
East African Lions from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition on display in the new U.S. National Museum.
East African Lions from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition on display in the new U.S. National Museum, 1915. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
A colored postcard of the Roosevelt East African Lion Group.
A colored postcard of the Roosevelt East African Lion Group
Roosevelt specimens: giraffe, tapir, and zebras, on display in the new U.S. National Museum.
Roosevelt specimens: giraffe, tapir, and zebras, on display in the new U.S. National Museum, 1920. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

In the late 1950s, the Smithsonian undertook an institution-wide Exhibits Modernization Program. The Mammals Hall was dismantled and the animals restored and prepared for exhibit in new dioramas. The new exhibits emphasized mammal habitats, placing specimens in dioramas with painted backdrops and extensive vegetation from their natural habitats.

Animals from Africa in the newly modernized Hall of Mammals, 1959.
Animals from Africa in the newly modernized Hall of Mammals, c. 1959. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Roosevelt East African Lions. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, c. 1959

Roosevelt East African Lions, c. 1959. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives


The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. Photo by Don Hurlbut, Smithsonian Institution, 2003
The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. Photo by Don Hurlbut, Smithsonian Institution, 2003

In the first years of the twenty-first century, the National Museum of Natural History once again renovated the Mammals Hall, opening the new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals in 2003. The 25,000 square foot hall tells the story of the evolution and adaption of animals to changing environments over time. It features some 274 lifelike specimens, and nearly a dozen fossil mammals, including a 24-million year old kangaroo from northeastern Australia. The Roosevelt Rhino, which was displayed originally and in its 1960s diorama in a family group, is now showcased as an individual specimen in an exhibit at the entrance to the Mammals Hall. The rhino, representing one of the largest living mammals and one that is highly endangered, is juxtaposed with a tiny tree shrew. Nearby hangs a Chinese pangolin, curled into a protective ball, an example of the diversity of mammal behavior; while elsewhere in the case a moose, the largest of the deer family, stands together with an Indian muntjac, one of the smallest, and a fanged Chinese water deer, one of the most curious. The Roosevelt Rhino now helps to illustrate the great diversity of mammals today.

LINKS:

Teddy Roosevelt and his connection to the Smithsonian

SI-Roosevelt Expedition

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