A Monumental Tusk
In Natural History's Redone Rotunda, a Well-Adjusted Elephant
By Jacqueline Trescott
New paint, new brick-red signs, a new name and a new platform for "Henry," the museum's 13-foot-tall African bull elephant, equipped with sounds of the savanna and authentic dung castings, are part of the overhaul.
The first noticeable difference is that the elephant's location has been changed, making the area much brighter. In the past, a visitor coming in from the Mall entrance used to walk straight up to Henry's formidable hide. As a result, the largest mounted animal in the world tended to soak up all the attention and, it turned out, all the light.
So the elephant, after much debate at the museum, has been moved 3 1/2 feet from the center of the Rotunda and raised 2 1/2 feet, the first change since 1959. Turned just so, with his trunk up and ears fanned in an alert position, Henry, as he is unofficially known, looks like he might be greeting, or sizing up, visitors from the Mall entrance or the escalator.
"This does have the effect of raising people's eyes," pronounced Robert Fri, the museum's director, walking around the refurbished four-story atrium under a turn-of-the-century skylight.
"This is a functional space, and has to be, with 7 million visitors a year," he said. "It is important that it work as an orientation space--you need a scope of what is in the museum."
Clues to the building's contents are included in the elephant's platform and in the bold signs hanging in the Rotunda balconies that point the way to the Hope Diamond and the Insect Zoo.
The elephant is standing among the broad-bordered grass and sand of its natural habitat in Angola. Footprints of humans, lizards and zebras mark the foundation. On one side is a dry watering hole, with a fallen silver terminalia tree that has a can, left by a herder, tied to a branch.
The naturalness extends to the putty-colored reproduction dung, which was cast after Carol Reuter, an exhibits specialist at the museum, retrieved some of the real stuff from the National Zoo.
"I took some five-gallon buckets and went over to the zoo. They asked if we had any colds, flu or virus, and then let us go into the pen. We made our collections, and the elephants were very curious about what we were doing," explained Reuter, who got a bonus only a naturalist could appreciate. "When we picked it up, there was a dung beetle underneath."
Back in her shop, Reuter made the models from mache, mortar and auto body putty. She added grass leaves and seeds to some to show the interdependence of the ecological system.
And this is multitasking dung: Many of the piles contain speakers to broadcast bird calls and the foghorn sound of the elephants.
Embedded in the elephant's platform are four panels that tell the story of the Angolan savanna, as well as introduce visitors to the seven scientific departments of the museum.
A panel underneath explains the savanna grasses and the birds, such as the lilac-breasted roller and carmine bee eater. A second section deals with the insects, such as the green bottle fly and the harvester ant, and explains the cleaning proficiency of the beetles.
Another panel has replicas of fossilized bones, suggestions of what a visitor might find in a dig near the elephant's East African home. And there's a black-backed jackal hurrying down a hole to its female companion. A final section contains a screen with outtakes from a museum documentary, "Africa's Elephant Kingdom."
Suspended from a third-floor balcony is a white-backed vulture with a seven-foot wingspan, checking out the action.
All this sprucing up was done by the museum's own design team and construction crews and enabled by a record gift from California businessman Kenneth E. Behring of $20 million, also covering an overhaul of the Hall of Mammals, which along with the Rotunda has been renamed for the Behring family.
Now the other recent renovations--the vast gift shops, the modern cafe and the Imax theater, whose 3-D presentation of "Galapagos" grossed $125,000 in its first two weeks--have a welcoming, educational center.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company