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The Sad Story of Jumbo the Elephant

Installation view, 'Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot' at the Tufts University Art Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
Installation view, ‘Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot’ at the Tufts University Art Gallery, showing Jumbo-related products including Jumbo pull toy, Jumbo bubble blowing toy, and Jumbo fruit labels (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

MEDFORD, Mass. — Poor Jumbo. In P.T. Barnum’s hands he became the most famous African elephant in the world — lure to throngs of circus visitors and unknowing shill for countless products. His outsized fame, undimmed by his premature demise, has much to tell us about the rise of a celebrity-driven entertainment economy. Equally relevant are the tensions between cultural or scientific goals and crowd-pleasing distraction that still play out in today’s museums and zoos.

After his 1862 capture by nomadic hunters as a young calf in Eastern Africa, Jumbo was shipped off to Europe, despite the odds against him surviving the journey. His first destination was the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where he was for a brief period not only the sole African elephant at that particular zoo, but unique in all of Europe — his predecessors having all died before his arrival. The addition of two other African elephant calves to the Paris collection, however, soon rendered Jumbo superfluous, and he was traded to the London Zoological Society in 1865. There, despite arriving in poor health, he attained his famous size and became known as the children’s “pet” for his popularity as a ride attraction. Yet moody and unpredictable behavior as he entered adolescence (typical, apparently, in elephants as well as humans) became a growing concern.

Hearing about Jumbo’s uncertain status, P. T. Barnum swooped in with an offer to purchase the elephant for his circus. After a second intercontinental journey in 1882, Jumbo joined Barnum’s entertainment operation, logging 32,000 rail miles across eastern regions of North America in less than four years, until he was mowed down by an unscheduled freight train outside of St. Thomas, Ontario, in 1885. Even in death Barnum continued to promote his major attraction, putting out the story that Jumbo had saved another miniature elephant while sacrificing himself; he went so far as to transform the elephant into double Jumbo by making displays of both the skeleton and the stuffed hide. Evidence of the lasting impact of Barnum’s relentless hyping of his natural wonder can be seen in the enduring use of the word “jumbo” to designate anything claimed to have outsize proportions.

Moving Jumbo into the Barnum Museum (1889) (image courtesy Tufts University Art Gallery)
Moving Jumbo into the Barnum Museum (1889) (image courtesy Tufts University Art Gallery)

This historical narrative, along with a seemingly limitless slew of Jumbo-mania that started during the elephant’s brief life and continues to the present, is the subject of an exhibition (and associated publication) at the Tufts University Art Gallery. One might wonder why Andrew McClelland, a noted scholar of art museum history, would choose this as his first venture as a curator. A possible answer can be found in Jumbo’s status as Tufts mascot — which came about as a result of Barnum’s eventual donation of the stuffed Jumbo to the museum of natural history he had funded at the university (while the skeleton went to the Museum of Natural History in New York). But beyond these donations, Barnum, the indefatigable showman, is far more deeply intertwined in museum history than one might expect.

Although contemporary museum programming comes in for its fair share of criticism for crowd-pleasing spectacle and entertainment, tensions about museum missions have a long history. This is particularly true in the United States, where private funding for the museums that were established in the late 18th century made such ventures highly dependent on admission fees. For Charles Willson Peale’s pioneering Philadelphia Museum, one of the big draws was a mastodon skeleton (incidentally, a creature that some initially thought to be a type of American elephant) that he excavated in 1801 and put on display. But a lack of government backing led to the dissolution of Peale’s collections after his death. Barnum purchased many of the displays, as well as a number from John Scudder’s American Museum in New York, for his own early museum projects, and he had no compunctions about emphasizing the entertainment side of the equation.

A series of significant fires in 1851, 1865, and 1868 largely put an end to the museum chapter of Barnum’s career, leaving him free to concentrate his full ambition on the circus established under his name in 1871. It’s hardly coincidental that Barnum’s emphasis on traveling entertainment arose in the aftermath of the Civil War; he took full advantage of the rail network developed as part of war-related supply operations.

Installation view, 'Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot' at the Tufts University Art Gallery (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot’ at the Tufts University Art Gallery (click to enlarge)

By the time of his Jumbo acquisition, Barnum was well equipped to exploit the publicity associated with his colossal new attraction, including the widespread outcry that arose in England once the sale was announced. After Jumbo was safely in his hands, Barnum carefully controlled the star’s image, forbidding photographic documentation in favor of promotional illustrations in which size distinctions between elephant and surrounding humans became ever more pronounced. In contrast, however, to the conscious strategies of cross-branding and synergy evident in today’s marketing landscape, Barnum does not seem to have been directly involved in, or received any benefit from, the legion of goods that exploited Jumbo’s carefully nurtured fame — represented in the Tufts exhibition by an impressive array of Jumbo-emblazoned advertising cards and products.

Differences between Barnum’s era and later entertainment industry developments are also evident in the relative absence of Disney’s Jumbo spin-off from the exhibition, as a result of the media giant’s obsessive control over the contexts in which its characters are allowed to appear. According to Disney’s 1941 animated yarn, their elephant was named Jumbo Jr., but he was so inept that he was derisively called “Dumbo.” Because of Disney’s unwillingness to cooperate with Tufts, Dumbo makes only an oblique appearance here — in a photograph of a 1945 “Jumbo” B-29 bomber, decorated with art produced by Disney artists contributing to the war effort, who defaulted to a Dumbo image.

Jumbo military plane (image courtesy Tufts Art Gallery)
Jumbo military plane (image courtesy Tufts Art Gallery)

Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot is also interesting for McClellan’s willingness to play fast and loose with the status of the objects on display. Some are genuine artifacts, but he has substituted reproductions as needed, not only with photographs and posters but also a 3D-printed replica of a commemoratively carved cross-section of Jumbo’s tusk that could not be loaned by its Canadian owner because of laws against traffic in ivory. Nor is McClellan the first curator to discover that, when putting on an exhibition of popular ephemera, certain types of material can be procured more easily off of eBay than through loans.

In one case, however, his failure to win a lot at auction was actually fortuitous: at an early point in his Jumbo research, McClellan found out about a Bonham’s sale that included various Jumbo-related objects from the superintendent of the London Zoo, including Barnum’s letter affirming his offer to buy their “tall elephant,” on the premise that, despite his nervous temperament, “kind treatment and plenty of chains” might enable his transportation to New York. Authorization by the Tufts president to bid up to the top of the estimate was not enough to secure the lot, but McClellan’s status as underbidder was in some respects more productive: he was able to convince the auction house to forward a letter to the successful purchaser, located in St. Thomas (the town where Jumbo met his mythic demise), who turned out to be a major collector of Jumbo-related ephemera.

3D-printedreproduction of a decorated cross section of Jumbo’s tusk (1885–86)
3D-printed reproduction of a decorated cross section of Jumbo’s tusk (1885–86)

The Tufts taxidermy collection that Barnum established was always a somewhat odd assortment, since, as a repository of deceased circus animals, it tended toward the exotic. By the 1940s, with any educational or scientific usefulness long past (and the pieces in rather sad shape), the stuffed specimens were cleared out, save for Jumbo, who had acquired mascot status. But Jumbo, too, was lost in a 1975 fire, so all that remains (other than the skeleton still in New York) are some ashes collected the next morning and part of his tail, which had been detached from his body by overly enthusiastic students who had a tradition of tugging it for good luck.

The timing of the exhibition coincides with the impending delivery of a brand new Jumbo mascot for the campus, in the form of a life-sized bronze statue (approximately 11 feet high at the shoulders) that will soon arrive from the West Coast foundry where it is being cast. This massive commission will replace a popular yet anachronistic statue of an Asian elephant that has stood on campus since it was donated by an alumni group 1990s — one that originated, appropriately enough, in an amusement park. But because of Barnum’s ban on photographic records, the unabashedly kitschy realism of this new Jumbo effigy is based on earlier images, taken before his departure from London.

Installation view, 'Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot' at the Tufts University Art Gallery
Installation view, ‘Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot’ at the Tufts University Art Gallery

Barnum’s funding of a natural history museum at Tufts indicates a certain bid for respectability; yet a half-fish, half-sculpted human form that McClellan clearly couldn’t resist borrowing from Harvard’s Peabody Museum is a possible candidate for one of Barnum’s most famous hoaxes, his so-called “Feejee Mermaid.” It’s also important to note how societal standards have changed: Barnum’s “Ethnological Congress of Strange and Savage Tribes” display (which included a group of Australian Aborigines recruited in 1883) is thankfully now completely unimaginable, and the 2013 documentary Blackfish is emblematic of burgeoning doubts about the ethics of holding intelligent, social animals in captivity for human entertainment at all. But one has to think that Barnum would have felt right in his element if he’d witnessed the crowds lined up around the block outside the Whitney Museum in recent months, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take selfies in front of Jeff Koons’s shiny, 10-foot-high “Balloon Dog.” With their increasing emphasis on visiting as an event, together with an array of ancillary activities that include shopping and dining venues, live entertainment, exclusive galas, family days, and singles nights, 21st-century museums are clearly managing to uphold the fine entertainment tradition that Barnum worked so tirelessly to promote.

Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot continues at the Tufts University Art Gallery (Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Avenue, Medford, MA) through December 7.

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