One of the historic and interesting collections in permanent exhibition of Gothenburg’s Natural History Museum is an elephant. It is from Angola. It stands in the middle in the hall of mammals almost alive. “It looks like live and moving,” says Renée Göthburg, Communications Officer of the museum. “It is a beautifully mounted elephant.”
The elephant in the museum is also one of the most photographed objects for it is almost real and gigantic and alive. It was presented to the visitors of the museum on 28 March 1952. Two weeks after it was first displayed, the elephant had attracted over 15,000 visitors, and on Easter Day, 4,200 people came to see it.
The Museum of Natural History in Gothenburg wished for an elephant to its collection for a long time. Once funds were raised, curator David Sjölander went on an expedition to find such an animal. “Since 1933, he had nursed his dream – to have the opportunity to preserve an elephant for the museum collections. The trip would cost about SEK 20,000 which were donated partly from the museum board and partly from the city council. In the summer of 1948, Sjölander took off for Angola. Besides the elephant, he aimed to bring back other mammal skins, birds and insects. Skins were expensive at the time, and were sometimes of a poor quality,” the museum informs. Sjölander got the permission from local authorities to shoot two animals of each kind for export and set out for an expedition. The museum informs, “It wasn’t until December that Sjölander found an elephant that could live up to his expectations – a full-grown bull. The land was now well into the drought season, and the elephants were moving inland. For a while, Sjölander studied the anatomy and character of his chosen prey, made several sketches and took photographs. Then one morning, he shot the bull himself, putting the 9.5 mm bullet from his Winchester firmly in its heart. He recounts, ‘…it fell to the ground. It made a weak trumpeting noise, grabbed a nearby acacia tree and tried to lift itself, then finally laid down.’ Now, the skinning had be to be done swiftly. ‘The drums had spoken, and two entire villages came to help us. (…).’ An hour before midnight the elephant was completely skinned, and ready to be treated with salt and various other chemicals. Now it would be cut into smaller pieces, and transported by stages to Mossamedes.
Working with the clay model, Sjölander made a mould for a plaster cast. This was reinforced with sackcloth. The skin was ready to be stitched on, and the various parts were held in place with steel pins. Finally, when the glass eyes with their colours fired on were put in place, thin layers of plaster were used to create folds in the skins – every wrinkle was meticulously shaped and then left to dry. The coating was lacquered, the seams painted over, and a realistic-looking coat of paint finished the job.
David Sjölander was one of the most skilled curators the museum has ever had. The museum recounts his contribution, “The elephant was among his final achievements before he retired. Many of the animals he preserved over the years, he had shot personally. From the Angola expedition he also brought home a rhinoceros, which he dealt with right after the elephant. To this day, it can be found in the mammal hall along with several of his other pieces, such as the zebra and the giraffe.”