Double Take: One Mastodon, Two Viewpoints

  • On Wednesday, July 15, 2020, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) presented an engaging discussion between Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at SAAM, and Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, about the unexpected connections between American art and the mastodon skeleton featured in SAAM's exhibition Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture. The exhibition places American art squarely in the center of a conversation about the lasting influence of the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) with artworks that reveal how the American wilderness became emblematic of the country’s distinctive character. The exhibition includes the original “Peale Mastodon” skeleton, on loan from the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, as well as two paintings by Charles Willson Peale featuring the fossil—Exhumation of the Mastodon (1806–08) and The Artist in His Museum (1822). The inclusion of the mastodon in the exhibition represents a homecoming for the important fossil that has been in Europe since 1847, and emphasizes that natural history and natural monuments bond Humboldt with the United States. The skeleton, excavated in 1801 in upstate New York, was the most complete to be unearthed at that time. Its discovery became a symbol of civic pride. In 1804, Humboldt was honored with a dinner beneath the mastodon while it was exhibited in the Peale Museum in Philadelphia.

    This program is part of SAAM's Double Take series, which features two Smithsonian specialists of different disciplines who team up to talk about a single artwork or artifact.