The Curve of the Rhino Horn: Where Natural and Cultural Heritage Meet

28 Aug 2011 2:40 PM | Anonymous

The surrealist artist Salvador Dali believed the horn of the rhinoceros to be among the most perfectly constructed objects in nature for its logarithmic spiral that maintains the same curve as it grows. Upon being given one as a gift, he exclaimed, “This horn will save my life!” Dali strived to mimic its pattern in painting, trying to lift the delicate horn from the lumbering form of the rhinoceros itself.

Beyond Dali, few westerners have appreciated the rhinoceros’ form. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, big game hunters and scientific expeditions counted them among the must-haves from an African safari. Taxidermists then mounted their heads or resurrected whole bodies in museums halls. Some used the horn and hoof to create novelty items like side tables and ashtrays to furnish their homes with proof of their prowess.

The white rhinoceros shot by Roosevelt is still on view at NMNH. Photo by Chip Clarke, Smithsonian.Overall, the modern era perceived the rhinoceros as unfit for survival. “Like men of the old stone age,” wrote naturalist-hunter Herbert Lang (who shot the white rhino on display at the American Museum of Natural History) in 1920, “with but few implements for defense or attack compared with the multitude of destructive weapons in our times, the rhinoceros seems to lag ages behind in the development of its various senses.” The rhinoceros’ inability to adapt to human technology, Lang wrote, leaves it “hopelessly doomed by modern firearms.” Theodore Roosevelt also considered the rhinoceros a relic: “Indeed the rhinoceros does seem like a survival from the elder world that has vanished; he was in place in the Pliocene, he would not have been out of place in the Miocene, but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind, while the rest of the world, for good or for evil, has gone forward.” His white rhino prize sits in the Smithsonian’s collections.

We’ve all likely seen these museum rhinos, my own experience observing museum visitors is that they are props for children’s education. Their histories are often not told in exhibits. But the heritage of hunting and wildlife conservation are implicit in their continued presence in the best of western museums halls.

A string of post-mortem poaching is now forcing us to consider the role of such rhinoceroses in our cultural heritage. Since May of this year, more than twenty rhino horns and heads have been stolen from museum exhibits in England, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, and France. Another was taken from an auction house in Essex. While at first the idea of thieves making off with monstrous rhinoceros heads may conjure a comical scene, these unexpected robberies are well-organized and increasingly successful.

The string of robberies has caused concern in the museum community. The Natural Science Collections Association has recommended museums remove rhino horns from public display, and even suggest hiding information about rhinos and rhino horns in collections from public view on websites and collection databases.London’s Natural History Museum has put fake horns in place of real ones. Two other British museums, the Horniman and the Haslemere, have removed all rhino horns from display.

Valued for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for a variety of ailments, a recent rumor that rhino horn cured a Thai official of cancer has fueled demand and driven the price above that of gold and cocaine. Along with these museum robberies, poaching in Africa has been more frequent this year than in recent memory. At a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) last week, the Standing Committee agreed to treat the illegal trade of rhino horns as a drug war.

Poaching has been a problem on the African landscape for decades. But why has it now spread to museums?

Two years ago, the European Commission ruled that rhinoceros trophies, including the horn, could be legally sold and traded. Their intent was not to encourage the trade in rhino horn for medicine, but to create a free market for rhinos as art and artifact. Previous to this ruling, all rhinosundefinedliving and deadundefinedwere protected by endangered species laws. Stuffed and mounted rhinos shared the same protection as their living descendants. Recently, the Commission updated its regulations, working with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to institute a ban on the trade of all rhino horn. Only horns that have been carved before 1947 (primarily referring to antique Chinese rhino horn cups like the ones that set an appraisal record on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow recently) are excluded.

How are mounted animal heads part of cultural heritage? Displayed in the halls of museums, they represent the nineteenth-century era of trophy hunting. They are visual symbols of colonization. And they are associated, sometimes, with famous figures of exploration or royalty. Even if the horn has not been carved, taxidermy itself is an art form. Thus, when a rhinoceros head is stolen, it robs us of an object of historical and artistic worth.

What’s more, museum exhibits are increasingly part of local community identities. When robbers sawed the horn off “Rosie,” who had stood stuffed in Essex’s Ipswich Museum for one hundred years, a local official declared: “This is very upsetting and a loss to the whole community as well as to the museum. Rosie is a much-loved ‘character.’”

This obvious affront to community heritage is accompanied by less obvious ones. The problem of post-mortem poaching is a problem for those regulating trade in art and in animals. It calls attention to the perceived value of animals outside of their natural habitats. Rhinos sit on the cusp of natural and cultural heritage. If rhinoceros lives are significant because they are endangered animals, we must also consider their significance when they are not in the wild or, more poignantly, when they are already dead.

Kelly Enright is the author of a cultural history of the species, Rhinoceros (Reaktion 2008) and the biography of two adventurous filmmakers that often stared down charging rhinos, Osa and Martin: For the Love of Adventure (Lyons 2011). She holds a PhD in history and a MA in museum anthropology. A recent Animals and Society Institute fellow, she has written more about museums and animals on her blog In Search of the Curious


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