Author Archives: Madeleine Thompson

Fuertes Painting Conservation Treatment Success

We are pleased to share the results of a Conservation Treatment Grant we received from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network.  With this funding, we have been able to secure conservation treatment for a painting in our collection that holds historical, aesthetic, and cultural significance: Whooping Cranes on their Breeding Grounds in Saskatchewan, done in 1922 by the New York ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes and purchased from the artist in 1923 by the Wildlife Conservation Society for its artwork collection.  Conservator Nadia Ghannam performed repairs, cleaning, and stabilization that has helped restore this painting’s vibrancy and ensure its longevity.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Whooping Crane, on the Breeding Grounds in Saskatchewan, 1922. Oil on canvas. 60 x 75 inches.

A lifelong New York resident who was considered the foremost American ornithological painter of his lifetime, Louis Agassiz Fuertes illustrated several of the era’s most important bird books, and he produced dozens of murals and oil paintings featuring birds in glorious detail.  Fuertes’ particular significance, both to art history and ornithological history, was his approach to observing his subjects—an approach he honed alongside early WCS leaders.  Like his associate, the Bronx Zoo’s first Curator of Birds, William Beebe, Fuertes was an early proponent of studying animals in their natural habitats.  In this, they broke with researchers and artists before them, who had studied wildlife only from stuffed museum specimens.  Instead, Fuertes and Beebe each traveled extensively to observe living birds. Among Fuertes’ expeditions, he visited Canada, where he performed intensive studies of the cranes he depicts so vividly in this painting.  His first-hand observations of birds living in their natural habitats have been credited for the accuracy and vitality he brought to his ornithological paintings and showcased in these elegant and vivacious cranes. It is likewise significant that whooping cranes were among the birds central to one of the nascent wildlife conservation movement’s first public campaigns: to discourage the era’s destructive trend of using bird plumage to decorate women’s hats.  Paintings like Fuertes’s illustrated the birds’ beauty in their natural settings and sought to inspire care for these threatened animals.

Conservator Nadia Ghannam (R) and Art Preparator (Steven Day) preparing to work on the painting.
Conservator Nadia Ghannam (R) and Art Preparator (Steven Day) preparing to work on the painting.

As described elsewhere on this blog, early WCS leaders saw art as a vital means of stimulating public interest in animals.  Whooping cranes were of particular concern, and the Bronx Zoo’s first director feared that they would be “the next North American species to be totally exterminated.” Thankfully, that prediction has not borne out.  While whooping cranes are still endangered, their numbers have risen since the early twentieth century, in part due to advocacy measures and captive breeding programs aided by many including WCS. 

The NYSCA/GHHN Conservation Grant Treatment Program is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.  The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation has provided additional dedicated support for conservation treatment projects on Long Island and New York City.

50 Years of the World of Birds

The generations of zoogoers visiting the World of Birds will either insure the survival of wildlife through interest and concern, or its destruction through negligence and exploitation.”

World of Birds pamphlet, 1972
Crowds at the World of Birds in 1972, the year of its opening. WCS 35mm Slide Collection

The World of Birds opened on June 16, 1972.  The gift of Lila Acheson Wallace, for whom the building is named, it was widely considered among the most innovative zoo exhibits upon its opening, and it continues to be a Bronx Zoo icon. 

1906 Bronx Zoo Bird House postcard. WCS Archives Collection 2016.

The first Bronx Zoo Bird House opened in 1905 under the direction of the zoo’s first Curator of Birds, William Beebe. Its design was an attempt to deliver on early WCS leaders’ intentions to create a zoo that would be a “decided advance beyond anything thus far accomplished.” Although many of the Bird House’s features—including live plants and multi-species exhibits—were considered radical at the time of its opening, the evolution in zoo design over the course of the twentieth century led to WCS’s view by the late 1950s that the Bird House was outdated and sparked plans for the modern exhibit that would become the World of Birds. 

William Conway with tawny frogmouth in the World of Birds, 1972. WCS Photo Collection No. 45094.

William Conway developed the concept for the World of Birds.  At that time NYZS General Director, Bronx Zoo Director, and Ornithology Curator, Conway also oversaw the project’s planning, development, and construction.

World of Birds Preliminary Curatorial Specifications, by William Conway, 1968. WCS Archives Collection 1028.

Composed of a series of large interconnected cylinders with skylight roofs, and sweeping exterior ramps, the World of Birds was planned for the exhibition of 500 birds representing more than 200 species and subspecies in 25 separate exhibit areas.  The building’s lead architect, Morris Ketchum Jr., said of the design in the New York Times, “We didn’t worry about how the place looks from the outside. Conway’s very much against spending effort and money on exteriors except where it does something for the animals, but don’t think it’s any the worse for that.  What we did was simply build the exhibits, or habitats, as well as we could, then put a protective skin around them. It’s striking just as it is.”

Bird’s-eye view of the World of Birds, 1979. WCS 35mm Slide Collection.

The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable was among the many who were indeed struck by the building’s Brutalist design. She admiringly described its form in a New York Times review as an “asparagus-like bunch of cut-off cylinders, ellipses and free forms joined by ramps.”  The World of Birds, Huxtable wrote, “is surefire drama and painless education. And fun.”  She welcomed the new building as a sign of an always evolving institution, declaring that “There are no flies on New York’s Bronx Zoo.  It entertains, instructs and proselytizes, and it uses the tool of architecture to do so with singular skill.”

Visitors in the World of Birds around 1972. WCS 35mm Slide Collection.

Aside from the building’s exterior, several features contributed to building’s ingenuity. Although the World of Birds was often noted for its barrierless displays, these had been used before, in St. Louis and Philadelphia for instance. They had been used as well in the 1964 Bronx Zoo Aquatic Birds House, also led by Conway, which served as a testing ground for concepts that would make World of Birds so innovative.  What was new about the World of Birds was the development of immersive displays, like the African Jungle and South American Rain Forest exhibits, that placed visitors inside the exhibits.  The displays were enhanced by advanced features and exhibit technologies. Among these were a 120-foot-long, 50-foot-high fiberglass cliff (based on a mold of the New Jersey Palisades); a 40-foot waterfall; natural plants and live trees as well as fiberglass and cork trees; multi-level displays; built-in watering systems; artificial rainstorms including mists, sounds, and strobe lights; backgrounds utilizing new airbrushing techniques; and film displays to supplement graphics.

1972 World of Birds pamphlet with drawings by famed illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Ungerer’s graphics were also featured throughout the building’s signage. WCS Archives Collection 2016.

The World of Birds was designed to “awaken concern for the natural world,” and from the start, the building’s signage included messaging about threats to birds and their habitats.  An introductory pamphlet about the building included an appeal to visitors:  “As you gaze on these beautiful creatures, remember that their wild world is disappearing—that your children’s children may never have the possibility of observing such creatures.  The generations of zoogoers visiting the World of Birds will either insure the survival of wildlife through interest and concern, or its destruction through negligence and exploitation.” 

World of Birds exhibit on the threats of the pet parrot trade, circa 1990s. WCS 35mm Slide Collection.

Indeed, WCS believed strongly in the building’s ability to inspire visitors to take conservation actions, explaining elsewhere that “An enormous effort has been made to carry into the city some suggestion of the beauty of the natural world in which birds dwell outside.  It seems likely that the vast majority of visitors to the World of Birds and their children after them will have little opportunity to see wild animals in nature.  Nevertheless, it will be this growing municipal population whose feeling toward wildlife, reflected in their votes, will ultimately shape the future of national parks and wildlife refuges and the opportunities future generations will have to see and enjoy wildlife.  That is what the World of Birds is all about.” 

Pink pigeons are among the World of Birds’ conservation breeding successes. For more on the Bronx Zoo’s pink pigeon history, see this post on WCS’s Wild View photo blog.

Happy Administrative Professionals Day

William Bridges and Lucy Ouzoonion, circa 1950s.

Today in the WCS Archives we pay tribute to WCS’s Administrative Professionals, past and present.  In fact, without our Administrative Professionals, we would not have an archives.  For in their everyday roles, it is these staff members who have recorded, organized, saved, managed—and sometimes even decoded—the records that are WCS’s archives today.

Coded telegram written to William Hornaday and decoded by his secretary, Edith Franz. WCS Archives Collection 1001.

We were so pleased to be gifted the photo above recently of one of these Administrative Professionals, Lucy Ouzoonion, who spent her career as secretary to William Bridges, WCS’s Curator of Publications from 1935 to 1967.  Even though we are indebted to these women—and in WCS’s past, they were always women—for our archives today, they tend to turn up in our records in indirect ways.  Most often, they appear as typists’ initials at the bottom of letters.  

So to Lucy Ouzoonion, ef (Edith Franz), res (Rosalie E. Sevcik) gb (Gail Bonsignore), li (Louise Ingenito), gm (Gerry Marsetller), and ms (Myra Schomberg), we thank you and WCS’s dozens of other Administrative Professionals. You have ensured that WCS’s Archives exist today.

70th Anniversary of the Conservation Foundation [Instagram]

70 years ago today, the Conservation Foundation was established to support the New York Zoological Society’s ever-expanding conservation program.

CF funded courses in conservation study, educational films and radio programs, publications, and workshops. It also funded scientific research on natural resources, including the work cited by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962).

Although CF was closely affiliated with NYZS, and they jointly sponsored many wildlife conservation projects in the 1950s and 1960s, it was an independent organization from the start. In later years, the Foundation’s work turned more toward human environmental problems associated with development and away from wildlife conservation. In 1965, under the presidency of Russell Train, it moved its offices to Washington, DC and later became an affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund.

Shown is the Conservation Foundation’s logo and statement of purpose from an annual report held in WCS Archives Collection 1029. Processing for this collection was made possible by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) Access to Historical Records grant program.

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First Phase of Our Photo Preservation Project is Complete

Picture1 As we’ve been reporting, the WCS Archives has spent the first half of the year working on a project to preserve our photographic negative collection.  Funded by the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials, the project serves as the first phase in what we intend to be a larger initiative to preserve the entire collection.  During this first phase, we identified and rehoused the collection’s first 10,267 photographic negatives.  This included 2,111 dry plate glass negatives and 8,156 acetate film negatives; of these, all of the glass negatives and 60% of the acetate negatives were 5×7”, and 40% of the acetate negatives were 4×5” or smaller.  Continue reading

Celebrating the NPS Centennial in the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park

Wildlife Conservation Society_24782_Jackson Hole Wildlife Park Drawing by Lloyd Sanford_01 02 53This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and to celebrate this major event, we’re remembering the creation of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park.  In 1948, New York Zoological Society trustee and future NYZS president Laurance S. Rockefeller worked with NYZS and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to establish the park, and in 1962, the park was donated to the National Park Service for inclusion in Grand Teton National Park.

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Preserving Herpetological History… and Beyond

Wildlife Conservation Society_009962_Ball Python Snake_BZ_09 09 25In January 2016, the WCS Archives began a project to preserve WCS’s historical photographic negatives. Since then, another intern and I have been going through these negatives one by one, inspecting them and creating an inventory, noting any information we can glean about their title, date, and physical condition. To ensure their long-term preservation, these negatives are being rehoused and placed into new acid-free envelopes and boxes. The approximately 50,000 negatives in this collection include both acetate film and glass plate negatives, and the oldest images date back to 1899. During this first phase of the project, I have been working with around the first 10,000 negatives in the collection, which represent the earliest of WCS’s photos, ranging from 1899 to the early 1940s.  This project was funded by the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials.

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How the American Bison Became Our National Mammal

Bison at the Bronx Zoo being crated for transport to the Wichita Forest  and Game Preserve (now known as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife  Reserve), October 1907. William Hornaday appears on the left.  WCS Photo Collection

Bison at the Bronx Zoo being crated for transport to the Wichita Forest and Game Preserve (now known as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Reserve), October 1907. William Hornaday appears on the left. WCS Photo Collection

This week, President Obama signed a law making the bison the US’s first national mammal.  To celebrate this momentous event, we’re looking back on the history of protection for the American bison with a blog post over on Medium.  Check it out here:

The African Plains: “A New Vista to the Wonders of Nature”

wcs-2016-pc-091“A new vista to the wonders of Nature.”  This is how New York Zoological Society President Fairfield Osborn described the brand new African Plains exhibit when it opened at the Bronx Zoo 75 years ago next week, on May 1, 1941.  The exhibit—with its bringing together of several African species, including lions, zebras, nyalas, and many birds, into an expansive savannah landscape—was indeed a new vista for the Zoo.  Whereas previous Bronx Zoo exhibits were conceived around animal orders or families—what Osborn referred to as “man-made classification”—and often indoors—think of the old Lion House, the Monkey House—the African Plains brought together animals based on geography, and it placed them in a naturalistic setting. Continue reading

Grace Davall

IMG_1464This Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating Grace Davall, who began her career in a secretarial role at the Bronx Zoo in 1923, at the age of 18, and rose through the ranks to become Assistant Curator of Mammals and Birds in 1952.  Upon her retirement in 1970 until her death in 1985, she was designated Curator Emeritus.  Continue reading