Flammable Hippo

Back in October last year I went out to Chicago to visit my best friend from college. These days she’s finishing up her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. The last time I saw her was Lawrence itself in 2016, but this time we decided to meet up in Chicago, as October 2018 was not only homecoming weekend, but the 10th anniversary of our graduation (yikes!). We figured the best way to celebrate was to do what we had always done as undergraduates: skip the parade and go to Chicago.

Chicago’s a big city and we only had one day in it, so we decided to revisit one of our favorite places, The Field Museum. We used to spend whole days at this place, so we’re pretty familiar with the exhibits, but there is always plenty to see and talk about, particularly within the frameworks of colonialism, anthropology, paleontology. Like a lot of museums, the Field has been making a greater effort toward addressing the racist, colonialist aspects of its collections, but this work is by no means complete. The main attraction, by far, was their newest dinosaur acquisition, Maximo the Titanosaur.

Behold Maximo. SUE is upstairs now.

While the dinosaurs get the most attention, even the established exhibits are so expansive that you’re likely to notice something new every time you visit. Such was the case with this display:

This is a celluloid hippopotamus made in the 1930s under the auspices of the WPA. Based on a cast of an actual hippo, it was likely created as an alternative to the taxidermied specimens that had been popular at the turn of the century. With the Great Depression still active, I suspect the budget for specimen-collection expeditions was curtailed, so having the ability to produce exhibition-quality models without relying on collecting and preserving hides would have been advantageous. As an early plastic, celluloid is highly flammable though, so this hippo has to remain behind glass to ensure visitor safety.

Exhibition label for the flammable hippo.

Aside from thinking that “Flammable Hippo” would make a great name for a rock band, the connection between the Field Museum and the Works Progress Administration intrigued me. While I’m pretty familiar with the Field Museum’s affiliations with the 1893 Columbia Exposition, I did not know about its associations with the WPA. According to the exhibition label, the WPA actually created quite a few installations for the museum, including celluloid models such as this one. Naturally I started wondering whether there were other surviving models in the collection, and which other museums featured WPA-created displays.

More recently, the flammable hippo has had me thinking about a book of essays I read in my independent study, Cultural Excursions by Neil Harris. Though not a recent publication, it’s seminal in the field of social history and cultural studies, as Harris was one of the first historians to note the kinship between museums, world’s fairs, and department stores. His writings on consumer culture have been particularly influential, as he recognized that the act of buying and using material stuff isn’t just a mindless activity. Rather, consumerism is an assertion of aspiration, with our possessions becoming a representation of our ideal selves.

As with any book, there were parts I liked about his argument and parts I disagreed with, but one statement that particularly bothered me was his assessment of museums in the interwar period. Essentially, he concluded that they were treading water, and that department stores and world’s fairs were the primary innovators in exhibition display and design. In my opinion, this assessment stems in part from the knowledge of what museums would become in the postwar period, and that, intentionally or not, they’re being retroactively assigned a role they may not have been expected to fulfill in this period.

I tend to be suspicious of any broad statement about a particular time period or era, however, so I’ve made a point of paying closer attention to what museums were doing during this time period. As the flammable hippo suggests, museums were producing new things. The next step would be to find out how this fellow was actually used, and whether he had any celluloid friends.

Rock on, flammable hippo.

Will this become a future project? Perhaps, but if nothing else, it demonstrates how omnipresent the WPA really is once you start to look for it.

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