'It was almost like we discovered a hidden figure in our museum': Field Museum celebrates 1st African American taxidermist

A new discovery at the Field Museum came as a pleasant surprise to many on the staff.

The discovery is the man behind so many of the beautiful work and displays at the Field Museum, Carl Cotton.

"Carl Cotton was a Field Museum taxidermist who started here in 1947 until he passed 1971. [He was] born and raised here in Chicago," said Field Museum exhibition developer Tori Lee.

The Field Museum's first African American taxidermist was a man of mystery to even those on staff.

"So it's a revelation to many of us," said Reda Brooks, exhibition budget coordinator at the Field Museum. "There were not very many people who were around, or anyone really, was around when he was here from 1947-1971, so it was almost like we discovered a hidden figure in our museum."

"Reda showed me a picture of him in our 125th anniversary book. I had never seen it before," Lee said. "It was this incredible picture of him perched in the Nile diorama and I was, we were both shocked. We had no idea that there was a taxidermist here that was black. Just seeing anyone in our archival photos who was black is a big deal for us. So we both took it and ran and it became this exhibition."

Cotton's work was well documented at the museum, so creating an exhibit of his work was all about research and figuring out where it was placed. Some was found on display and others tucked away in offices.

"He did a lot of taxidermy here but he also created these dynamic, immersive exhibits that rally showcased nature and kind of brought nature here to the Field Museum," Lee said.

When you visit his exhibit you'll find that work prepared by Carl Cotton, archival photography and footage of him creating his iconic Nile diorama. There is even a map to show you where to find his work throughout the Field Museum.


"He had his hands on a lot of different things in the museum," Brooks said.

"A Natural Talent: The Taxidermy of Carl Cotton" runs until October 4 at the Field Museum.
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