The Case of the Missing Pygmy Hippo

In the 1970s, the Pink Palace Museum was changing from an eclectic collection of oddities to a museum with a cohesive mission to preserve and exhibit the cultural and natural history of the Mid-South. Staff members started the zoo salvage program to build up the museum’s natural history collection. When an animal died at the Memphis Zoo, the zoo director decided whether or not he wanted the zoo to keep the animal. If not, the zoo’s vet notified the Collections Department at the Pink Palace where the curator of collections or the staff biologist decided if the animal would further the museum’s educational goals, which included teaching anatomy and evolution. The museum tried to pick up available carcasses within four hours of being notified. The animals were brought to the museum to be prepared in the biology labs. Carcasses were frozen on premises and later processed for use in exhibits or education programs. Some of these animals were taxidermied while others were defleshed so that their skeletons could be used.

In November 1971, a pygmy hippopotamus and a wooly tapir died at the zoo and were transported to the museum. Staff decided that their skeletons would be a valuable addition to the collection, so the decision was made to bury the bodies outside the basement level animal room of the mansion. The idea was that the soft tissue would gradually be stripped from the bones and then the skeletons could be recovered. Unfortunately, the exact locations of the burials were not recorded and the pygmy hippo and wooly tapir’s exact whereabouts remain a museum mystery.

King Vulture

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Trout Fishing in Memphis

When Clarence Saunders planned his palatial estate, Cla-Le-Clare, it was to be a showplace, his sanctuary of superlatives. It would to be the largest house in Memphis, with self-sufficient electrical power and its own ice factory. There were stables, tennis courts and the country’s largest private golf course. There were to be riding trails and log cabins on an island in his private lake. Saunders’ audacious estate was just outside of the Memphis borders and located directly across Central Avenue from the Memphis Country Club, sure to be viewed by the city’s gentry. But few knew how far his dreams for the property extended. Saunders transformation of the former farmland into his dream manor included a technological makeover of the landscape.

Saunders asked engineers to design a mountain trout stream and a shoreline with rolling surf on his property south of Poplar Avenue in the flatlands of the Mississippi River Valley. Trout prefer cool water running streams to insure the maximum amount of oxygen in the water. When water temperatures rise above 70 degrees, the ability of the water to carry dissolved oxygen lowers and trout become lethargic and stop feeding. Because Saunders hoped to fly fish, this would be a problem.

Electric World, the electrical engineers’ journal, reported in 1922 that Saunders planned to have ” … a crystal-clear brook flowing over a rocky bed, its course interspersed with falls and with the gamut of mountain trout inhabiting its stream… Although Mr. Saunders is transporting a complete stream from Colorado, bringing boulders, moss, ferns and the fish, he had to reckon with the natural temperatures of Memphis… To care for this he has arranged a duplicate electrical refrigerating scheme, one system to operate in case the other is interrupted, and thus will insure his trout that they will remain as cool as in their Colorado home. Engineers are at work…designing electrically operated agitators concealed beneath the surface [of an artificial beach]…to create an artificial surf.”[i]

Electric World did not say how this was to be accomplished or at what expense, but their breathless account of Saunders’ plans reiterates his ability to convince anyone of nearly anything. Like everything but the Pink Palace building, Saunders’ dream of a Memphis trout stream and surf-filled beach evaporated along with his first fortune.

[i] Electrical World, Volume 80 Number 13 Page 682, McGraw-Hill, 1922

Steve Masler is the Manager of the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. He has a graduate degree in Anthropology from Northern Illinois University and has lived in Memphis for 35 years. He has been the manager of the Mississippi River Museum at Mud Island, Chief Curator of WONDERS: The Memphis International Cultural Series, collected objects for the Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum and managed the replication of the Ramesses the Great statue, all proving that he can’t seem to hold on to a job. His favorite artifact at the Pink Palace is the 300 million year old Pennsylvanian Fossil Plant Slab.

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A Facelift and a New Exhibit

The permanent microscopes exhibit at the Pink Palace is getting a facelift courtesy of the Exhibits Department staff. If you have visited the museum recently, you may have noticed that the cubic centimeter of earth theater has been broken. Staff members George Henderson, Jason Lineberger and Corie Walker are enclosing the theater for additional storage space. The “let’s get small” walls are being combined into one continuous wall that is getting a fresh coat of paint as well as magnified murals of spiders and insects. Graphic designer Cynthia Williams is redesigning the text panels and adding images to make the exhibit more dynamic.

On the opposite side of the theater, the curatorial staff is developing a new exhibit about the tree of life that will complement the permanent exhibits on evolution. The thesis for this new exhibit is that understanding the tree of life is critical to understanding biology. All life is related, and the best way to illustrate this concept is the model of a tree. We will explore how our knowledge of the tree has changed over time, from the simple drawings of Charles Darwin to the complexity of modern molecular trees of life, and the exhibit will teach visitors how to read evolutionary trees.

Both exhibits are expected to be completed by early fall.

Corie Walker drilling MDV Microscope exhibit before

Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and her favorite artifacts are the Cold War civil defense supplies.

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