Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lions of the Field (Museum)


Yesterday (or maybe the day before; passage of time is a little fuzzy away from my normal schedule) it struck me that my old friends the Tsavo lions were somewhere in Chicago. I was pretty sure.

I have been intrigued by these two ever since, at the age of 12 or so, I read an article detailing the story of a pair of overly-large yet maneless male lions who led a reign of terror in East Africa for about a year from 1898 into early ‘99.
(My interest was such that as a boy I even named a cat that was for a time in my charge ‘Tsavo.’)

Impervious to guns, able to leap tall defenses in a single bound, silent, showing a wicked intellect for slaughter, and generally unafraid of anything at all, the two feasted on (what is generally estimated at) 135 to 140 workers busy building the Uganda Railway (through what was then a densely thorned jungle-wilderness). Including indigenous people digested, the actual figures may have been much higher.

Britain’s Colonel John Henry Patterson was the overseer of the railroad construction job until the lions shut it down. At that point, Patterson was compelled to do something and, drawing upon his experience bagging tigers in India, proceeded to spend nine months diligently stalking the stalkers.
In the end, the lions who didn’t want the Tsavo River crossed by a rail bridge were revealed to be not so entirely impervious to bullets as had been thought. But it took a whole lot of direct hits to prove it.

The saga of Col. Patterson hunting and defeating the demonized duo inspired the adventure side of my adolescent nature, and the scientific/naturalistic mysteries present fascinated the rest of me.
This should be made into a movie! I discovered it had been already. There have been two films based upon the Tsavo lions: Arch Oboler’s “Bwana Devil” of 1952, and “The Ghost and the Darkness” of 1996. I have seen neither.

Africa as a continent has been home to a number of oversize, reportedly demonic carnivores who have consumed men with enough apparent cunning to almost convince westerners of their [the creatures’] supernatural creepiness.
The famous Tsavo Two, a significant number of other less-publicized maneless lions from the same general area, Gustave the colossal croc…
Enthralling, actually. Although they all turn out to be mortal at their end.
And what gets really sinister is when these ‘super-carnivores’ start using their skills to slay simply for some type of pleasure, no longer consuming their kill. Or begin fearlessly parading through villages filled with the helpless, while still avoiding anyone with enough firepower to deal them hurt.

O.K… Getting back from that tangent:
I remembered having read that the lions were mounted and on display in a museum in Chicago. But what museum? Ordinarily it would take me seven seconds online to find out (I had even been to the museum website a few years ago to check out a picture of the remains), but I haven’t access to a computer in Chicago. (Over the past few days I’ve been writing these chronicles out long-hand for retroactive posting upon my return.)
So, I turned to the yellow pages left in my room. I seemed to recall the museum being something like “the Natural History Museum of Chicago” or “Chicago Natural History Museum.” None such in the book. So I ran my eye down the listed museums and decided that “The Field Museum” sounded right somehow…
One page back I found an ad for the Field Museum, and the logo on it reminded me distinctly of the one on the website header I’d seen a few year ago. The typeface, with a line and words set on it top and bottom... It was, I decided, it.

And the Field Museum (of Natural History; or, of Chicago), apparently named for Stanley Field, was pretty much within sight of the hotel. Right on Lake Michigan. So I walked over.

Inside I bought tickets (including those to the special exhibit on Pompeii), gleefully noting a reference to “The Man Eating Lions of Tsavo” in small letters almost lost behind a bunch of big ones about “Sue,” the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex. Sue is clearly the museum’s chief pull, with her name and skull plastered all over the museum (not to mention Chicago). I mused that T. rex was no longer the largest known flesh-eating dinosaur (there are several much larger), and that many scholars are vehemently proclaiming him (or her, in Sue’s case) a mere bipedal buzzard. But the length of time T.R. spent with the title of “largest non-veg dino,” and more particularly a specific cinematic theme-park, have of course still given Susie the Skeleton a hold on little kid’s daydreams.

I now knew my friends from Land of Carnage (Tsavo translated) reside here. But I was fairly certain of that already. I only now hoped my felines weren’t on loan somewhere. (That’s been known to happen when I show up at a museum for a particular exhibit.)

The vast lobby (Stanley Field Hall) houses Sue on one end, a couple of vegetarian dinosaurs on the other, and two incalculable mounted elephants between. Say what you like about the skeletons, those elephants have my vote for most impressive thing in sight. I’ve seen, touched, and ridden on elephants before, but I had never ever seen them a third this big. I looked around unsuccessfully for a sign designating one of them P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo (advertised as the largest elephant in the world).
Also in the hall were two signs sporting arrows and words saying “this way to the man eaters of Tsavo,” but they led me nowhere and I decided to tour Pompeii. A nice exhibit with lots of artifacts, lots of art, lots of volcanic information, and lots of dead people.

Back in the main museum area, I saw pretty much everything in it (though I’m told I did miss a huge flying fish stationed on the way to the bathrooms). Lots of dead animals, including Bushman the famous lowlands gorilla and the “Man-eater of Mfuwe,” another of Tsavo’s maneless monstrosities, killed by one Wayne Hosek on 9 September, 1991. The Mfuwe beast (below) is the largest man-eating lion on record. (Hosek’s kill beats Patterson’s out by a full half-inch in shoulder height.)

His picture is probably more representative of what the Tsavo Two looked like in life than their own mountings (top). I say this from early black-and-whites of the newly deceased lions. (The discrepancy in the duo’s appearance can be easily explained by the condition their skins were in by the time production began on the models.)

I found the 1898 Tsavo cats in the farthest wing of the museum, after a very winding trail of exhibits. I proceed to take a lot of photographs.
Twenty-five years passed between their having been shot and their skins having been mounted for the museum. During that time a lot of decay occurred, forcing a very difficult restoration job on the artists. In the end, much of the skins had to be cut away, losing the scraggily look one of them had had in life and cutting them down in size to about that of standard lions.
No matter, standing there looking at them was pretty cool. I really did feel somehow closer to J. H. Patterson’s true-life tale of carnage, cunning, and courage.

After the Tsavo sightings, I headed upstairs to tour the mineral exhibits, most notably the halls of gems and jades. In the jade area, I had a bit of fun scaring my fellow tourists with talk of a particular jade piece’s curse… Don’t worry, I made sure there weren’t any kids around to whom I might give nightmares.

And then it was onward to the gift-shop!
I picked up a couple of books on Tsavo and a slightly minimalist mug featuring an artist’s depiction of the Two (no more re-using the same Styrofoam cup back in the hotel!).
I also noted the VHS copies of the ‘96 film starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, with a sign set up proclaiming “The Hollywood Blockbuster Hit of the Historic Events!” From what I’ve read of its plot, the flick bears very little resemblance to those historic events. And does it really qualify for ‘blockbuster hit’ status if domestic gross was only 70 percent the film’s $55 million budget?
The VHS copies, by the by, were twenty bucks each. Wal-Mart will sell you a DVD for five.

Half the gift shop was devoted to plush dinosaurs (mostly Sues), and there was a sector for plush lions as well. I passed.
Instead I dropped a measly four dollars on a beautiful little alabaster jar. My mom loves alabaster, but probably foremost in this history enthusiast’s mind was the knowledge that the best contender for “holy grail” status is an alabaster vial (not unlike this one) which might possibly have held the valerian oils with which Mary the sister of Lazarus anointed Jesus the Christ.
That ups the cool factor for me.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

I enjoyed looking at the many wall paintings that you have done. Not being very handy with a paintbrush, even though I know what I like in the way of art, I took the easier option to order this canvas print from the site wahooart.com .
It’s an unusual work called Forest music 1, by Remedios Varo Uranga, a Spanish-Mexican woman artist.