Cinematic Nature

Hollywood Technology, Popular Culture, and
the American Museum of Natural History

By Gregg Mitman *

UPON ENTERING THE RICH TERRAIN of visual representation in science, one immediately confronts the problem of how to read such a lush and heterogeneous landscape. In an elegant essay published over fifteen years ago, Martin Rudwick explored the development of visual discourses within the geological sciences through a history of representational practices and styles found among different communities, such as artisans, cartographers, mineral geographers, and naturalist-travelers within early nineteenth century European culture. While Rudwick's essay illustrated the promise of visual representation in unveiling the social interactions at work in the activity of science, historians of medicine have devised other paths, cueing in on scientific images as cultural icons of power and gender in the healing arts. The most recent flurry of publication activity on visual representation in science has come largely from sociologists of science looking to understand the ways in which the commonplace and thus hidden aspects of scientific practice enter into the construction of scientific knowledge. Although the large body of literature now available may indicate that historians of science have shed what Rudwick called an "intellectually arrogant assumption that visual mod es of communication are either a sop to the less intelligent or a way of pandering to a generation soaked in television," the recent trend in studies on visual representation in science suggests that the profession is still far from comfortable in dissoci ating itself from elite, scientific culture. For despite a few exceptions, notably absent in this recent work are analyses of pictorial images as mediators between scientific and popular culture. 1

Perhaps this lack of attention to the multiplicity of meanings that visual representations can convey to different audiences reflects an unwillingness to break from a diffusionist model of popularization. This model entails an image of knowledge disse mination from a "high" scientific culture, where knowledge is generated, down to a general, nonspecialized, and passive audience that has had little if any role in the production of the knowledge consumed. Recently scholars have begun to challenge this di ffusionist model, prompted by concerns in the social studies of science with boundary formation and the local contingency of scientific knowledge, in addition to serious efforts to integrate social history and cultural studies into the history of science. 2 From Newtonian philosophy in children's books to experimental natural philosophy as public spectacle, from the role of science in the nineteenth century private parlor to the street philosophy of evolution in radical London, from the cultural meaning of a liens in 1950s science fiction cinema to that of cyborgs in more recent film genres, historians of science are beginning to ascertain the complex ways in which scientific knowledge is appropriated, resisted, and transformed by diverse audiences. 3

Although significantly enriched by these most recent studies, our understanding of science popularization is still largely confined to the written word. This essay is an attempt to offer an integrative historiographic approach that unites issues of sc ientific practice in the visual representation of science with a historical interest in the intersection of scientific and popular culture. The subject matter of this paper is itself an appeal for the inclusion of a much neglected source into the history of science namely, film. 4 One of the central tasks of this essay is to explore the permeability of boundaries between scientific culture and other cultural domains by examining the historical intersection of film as a communica tions technology intended primarily for entertainment and film as a field and laboratory technology designed for scientific research.

While the technology of film became the technology of entertainment in the hands of Hollywood, the motion picture was first developed not for entertainment purposes, but for the analysis of animal motion. Etienne-Jules Marey, a French physiologist, in vented the chronophotographic gun in 1882 to study birds in flight. During the same period in the United States, Eadweard Muybridge had produced a photographic sequence of horses in motion using multiple cameras with electronic shutters. Within the scient ific community, film quickly became an important research and educational tool. Medical cinematography flourished, as film became an ideal method for teaching surgical technique, but other fields soon capitalized on this new technology: in particular, ana tomy, embryology, psychology, anthropology, and animal behavior. By the 1920s film demonstrations were an integral part of such scientific meetings as the Association of American Anatomists, the American Society of Zoologists, the American Ornithologists' Union, and the American Society of Mammalogists. With the advent of 16mm film and more lightweight equipment, such as the Akeley camera developed by Carl Akeley at the American Museum of Natural History, the use of film in the study of behavior in both l aboratory and natural settings had by the late 1930s become commonplace. Clarence Ray Carpenter's films on the social behavior of Cayo Santiago rhesus monkeys and the pioneering photographic analysis of Balinese culture by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mea d are just two examples among many, showing that film became an important methodological tool within scientific disciplines that still relied primarily on field practices of observation and description. 5

No longer dependent on notebook and pencil, the biologist or anthropologist could record movements and behaviors on a medium that could then be transported to the laboratory, where movements could be slowed down and behavior analyzed, spliced, and edi ted. As the French physician Felix-Louis Regnault noted in his early history of ethnographic film,

the film of a movement is better for research than the simple viewing of movement; it is superior, even if the movement is slow. Film decomposes movement in a series of images that one can examine at leisure while slowing the movement at will, while stop ping it as necessary. Thus it eliminates the personal factor, whereas a movement, once it is finished, cannot be recalled except by memory, and this, even put in a sequence is not faithful. All in all, a film is superior to the best descriptions.

Like other inscription technologies of the late nineteenth century that became integral parts of experimental laboratory practice, film did more than augment the researcher's unaided eye. Lisa Cartwright has persuasively argued that the importance of the film motion study in the early twentieth century was that it effectively subsumed "the sense-based perceptions of an autonomous subject," rendering observation disembodied and dispersed. Situated before the camera lens, the researcher is distanced from t he spectacle of life and death; "technician, instrument, and body" have become part of the "extended physiological system" of the twentieth century laboratory. Thus the incorporation of cinema as an investigative technology within natural history discipli nes such as animal behavior facilitated attempts to mirror more closely the ideal of "mechanical objectivity" that has constituted the highly mediated world of twentieth century experimental life sciences. 6 Yet film could also accommodate the conventions of realism so central to the traditional representational practices of the museum diorama and to the study of nature in the wild. 7

Unlike other technologies, however, which were created and developed specifically for use by individuals within the scientific laboratory, the primary functions of film as art and entertainment were defined outside the cultural domain of science. Sci entists, in utilizing film, could never escape its entertainment role. Hollywood had decisively defined the terms in which the medium would be used, seen, and understood, and no one who partook of this technology could evade its influence. In the filming of behavior, the distinctions between science, art, and entertainment are thus blurred. In the visual representation, the natural object is transformed simultaneously into data and entertainment. And the audience no longer sees the film as artifice, as a constructed sequence of edited shots where authenticity is shattered, for the photograph participates in the rhetoric of objectivity, representing a fact frozen in time. Throughout this essay, I will repeatedly highlight the ways in which animal behavior films drew from popular cinematic conventions in an attempt to understand how film became both a research tool and a structuring metaphor for the direction and production of animal behavior research. Media of communication, as Neil Postman has suggested, serve as metaphors within cultural life, orienting and constraining the ways in which we experience the world in the same way that linguistic metaphors play important roles in the legitimation and construction of scientific, political, and social realitie s. 8 Furthermore, I will briefly touch upon the way these scientific images of animals came to be appropriated and transformed by popular culture.


With the panoramic frame now established an essential technique in natural history film the initial scene of this emerging narrative fades, and we are witness to an image that defines historical time and place. The shot, used by William Douglas Burden to open his 1927 film on the Komodo dragon, is of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, a leading center in the first half of this century in the development of natural history and ethnographic films. Inside, our gaze focuses upon the prim ary actors in this unfolding drama: Gladwyn Kingsley Noble, director of experimental biology at the American Museum, and his trustee, Burden. Adept entrepreneurs, both Noble and Burden recognized the importance of film in behavior research and its signifi cance as a medium for educational and promotional purposes.

The study of animal behavior at the American Museum was largely the result of the aspirations and energies of Noble and the public relations acumen of Burden. Noble, son of the noted publisher Gilbert Clifford Noble, had developed a fascination for s tudying the life histories of reptiles and birds while an undergraduate at Harvard. He received his A.M. degree under Thomas Barbour in 1918 and went on to obtain his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1922. His dissertation, "The Phylogeny of the Salienti a," reflected his lifelong interest in herpetology and systematics. Through William K. Gregory, his graduate adviser, who was professor of vertebrate paleontology and curator of the Department of Comparative Anatomy at the American Museum, Noble also deve loped an appreciation of functional morphology and microscopical anatomy in analyzing phylogenetic relationships. The close ties between Columbia University and the museum led to Noble's appointment as curator of the Department of Herpetology at the latte r in 1924. But Noble was not content with a career devoted entirely to systematics and natural history, when the cutting edge of biology lay in the experimental disciplines of neurology, physiology, and endocrinology. A series of offers from Columbia Univ ersity and Cornell University Medical School in 192X provided Noble with a bargaining position: as a condition of remaining at the museum, Noble demanded half of the fifth and sixth floors of the African wing, then under construction, for a laboratory of experimental biology; he also required an annual budget increase of $10,000, to $27,000. In addition, the Department of Herpetology was to become the Department of Herpetology and Experimental Biology, with half of Noble's time to be given to experimental biology research. 9

The museum acquiesced to Noble's demands, and in May 1934 the City of New York completed his Laboratory of Experimental Biology at a cost of $79,820. It occupied the entire sixth floor and the roof of the African wing and included, among other things, an aquarium room, three greenhouses, an animal house, a histology laboratory, and a physiology laboratory. But because of the financial constraints caused by the Depression, the museum could maintain its previous level of support. To compensate for the l oss of his research and clerical staff, Noble managed to secure help from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1934 seventeen WPA people were working in his laboratory; by 1937 this number had escalated to sixty-five. These workers were involved no t only in the preparation of exhibits and the maintenance of the aquarium rooms and laboratories. A number of individuals also worked as research assistants. In addition, Noble had a staff of at least seven people responsible for translating biological ar ticles from foreign journals, analyzing literature dealing with the morphology, physiology, and habits of reptiles, and collecting literature on the courtship and sexual behavior of animals. 10

Financial backing for Noble's Department of Experimental Biology owed much to the efforts of Burden, who, along with relatives and friends, contributed $47,500 for the operation of the department during its first five years. Burden's admiration and su pport of Noble as a research scientist was initially sparked by a course on paleontology that Burden took from Noble at the American Museum while pursuing a graduate degree in geology at Columbia University (A.M., 1926). Four years apart in age, the two h ad much in common. Both came from the elite of New York society; Burden's father made his fortune in iron and steel and owned a posh country estate on Long Island that was used by dignitaries such as the Prince of Wales. Both had attended Harvard as under graduates and served in the navy. Burden's social status and his big game hunting expeditions to the Far East and Alaska upon his graduation from Harvard served as rites of passage into the wealthy sportsmen circles of New York City, such as the Boone and Crockett Club. During the financial crisis, Burden constantly tried to provide Noble's department with a high public profile. He persuaded friends from the New York Times and Fortune to write articles about Noble's research. When, for examp le, Noble induced egg laying in a species of salamander through transplants of the pituitary gland, Burden urged him to go public. "What excitement you will evoke if the substance of your new hormone not only brings immature animals to sexual activity but increases sexual activity among the aged," Burden exclaimed. "Pull that trick and we will never have any difficulty raising funds for your research." Taking Burden's comments to heart, Noble published an article in the New York World Telegram enti tled "Recent Advances in Our Knowledge of Sex." Burden's public relations efforts secured over $35,000 from the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation and the National Research Council Committee for Research in Problems of Sex for Noble's research between 1935 and 1940. 11

Magazine articles and press releases were one way to market research findings. Another outlet, however, proved particularly well suited to the popularization of natural history subjects by the 1920s: the expedition film or travelogue. The success of M artin and Osa Johnson's 1927 film Simba which was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and generated $2 million in revenue, testified to the public's fascination with the exotic, be it wildlife or indigenous peoples. A documentary of the couple's travels across "the dark Continent," Simba was just one of numerous films during this period that interlaced footage of ferocious beasts and "primitive" tribes. Such travelogues, as Ella Shohat writes, incorporate a narrative of colo nial discourse, projecting the spectator into unknown lands whose inhabitants become objects of both the scientific and the popular gaze; their image is then "replayed and studied in the metropolis" for economic and scientific gain. 12

Intrigued by reports of a new species of giant lizard discovered in Java, Burden recognized the opportunity to document an expedition that would secure the creature for scientific and popular exhibition. Putting up $15,000 of his own money, Burden, wi th Noble's help, managed to secure the backing of the American Museum for a 1926 expedition to the Dutch East Indies to film and capture Varanus komodoensis, more commonly known as the Komodo dragon. He was accompanied on the expedition by his firs t wife, Katherine White Burden, the Smith College herpetologist Emmet Reid Dunn, a professional hunter from Indochina, J. M. Defosse, and a cameraman hired in Singapore, Lee Fai, in addition to numerous porters, cooks, and hunters hired in the region who remained nameless throughout Burden's stories. The expedition was both a scientific and a public relations success. Burden returned with two live specimens and twelve dead ones. The captured dragons were donated to the Bronx zoo, where attendance was said to have increased by thirty thousand people a day, and the dead specimens were used to make up the Komodo lizard group in the museum's new Hall of Reptiles, which opened to the public in 1927. 13

Unfortunately, the dragons did not live long at the zoo, and the "lethargic, deflated captive" failed to give "any impression of his aggressive, alert appearance in his wild home." As Burden, the Johnsons, and others realized, nature uncut and unedite d is never as dramatic and captivating as nature onscreen. Burden quickly recognized this when he began to construct popular accounts of the expedition upon his return to the United States. His "Komodo diary though absolutely exact" as to the chronologica l order of events "was utterly useless," for "it would have bored anyone to extinction." In preparing an article for Natural History, Burden had to do some judicious editing of his diary in order to bring suspense to the story and build to a climax . The Natural History account ends with Burden witnessing the live capture of the largest Komodo dragon they had seen on their travels, a beast "so large and so villainous of aspect that I trembled with instinctive revulsion." 14 Once snared, lassoed by Defosse, and hog-tied, the dragon was put into a special cage with steel netting placed over a large air hole at the top. The next morning, Burden wrote, all were dismayed to find that the beast, with its prodigious stren gth, had ripped the steel apart and escaped. The herpetologist Dunn took exception to Burden's retelling of the story. While he agreed that Burden had said nothing that was not "in consonance with the [Komodo dragon's] nature," Dunn complained that the ev ent that Burden described was "witnessed by no white man." "The beast that got away," he insisted, "was no larger than two that were shot," nor did it escape at the end of the expedition. Burden was irritated by Dunn's reaction. Their dispute epitomized a fundamental disagreement over the ethical practices involved in the popularization of science and realist representation. At what point had one gone beyond the boundaries of science and entered the world of fiction? Although the escape of the large Komod o dragon occurred early in the expedition, and although Burden had not actually seen its capture, his retelling of the story based upon the descriptions of Defosse and Dunn, who had witnessed the event was written to "make the reader feel as one felt at t he time." Failure to do so, Burden insisted, was "just as much a misrepresentation as to say that the big lizard was captured near the end of our trip instead of the first week." 15

In recounting the capture of the Komodo dragon, Burden's task was not, as Dunn believed, to provide a precise chronicle of events. Realism required much more. Burden sought to present an emotional reality, an expressive element that is quickly cast as ide in the presentation of scientific data but is essential for capturing the interest of and motivating the lay public. Burden needed to provide an experience for the audience that they would never have in a zoo. He came closest to this ideal in his film of the Komodo dragon expedition. Burden's objective was to take the raw footage of nature thousands of feet of film shot on the expedition and create such an illusion of reality that the spectators experienced the event more vividly than if they had been in Java with the Komodo dragons themselves. The scenes, however, could not be staged on the Hollywood set or in the zoo. Rather, Burden, like all documentary filmmakers, had to discover what the film theorist William Guynn calls "the elements of a story in latent form within the real." 16 How did he choose the precise frames that would display the essential features of the dragon's habits and behaviors to those seated in the comfort of the theater?

An analysis of the concluding sequence of the Komodo dragon film reveals much of the behind the scenes work that went into Burden's construction of the event. The scene begins with an unidentified porter, Burden, and Katherine entering a blind or "bom a." The shot already establishes the racial and gender hierarchies within the expedition. The unnamed Indonesian porter bears the heavy camera equipment, while Burden in true white hunter fashion bears the gun. Katherine follows behind. Burden closes the blind. Katherine begins turning the crank of the camera, and the drama of the next scene unfolds. A large Komodo dragon enters the screen from the left. At center screen is the carcass of a wild boar, set out by the expedition members, while a smaller dra gon is present on the right. As the large dragon goes to feed on the boar, the scene cuts to a close-up of the animal enveloping the bait with its jaws. A medium range shot of the dragons follows, with the large Komodo raising its head high upon its muscu lar forelegs. The action is heightened by a reverse shot showing the lens of the camera camouflaged in the blind and then an interior shot of Burden operating the camera and Katherine holding the gun, an excited look upon her face. Next we return to a clo se range shot of the large dragon feeding upon the boar, which incorporates parts of the footage used in a previous scene. The climax builds as our gaze returns to the blind; but now Katherine is running the camera, while Burden takes aim and fires. Only Burden is allowed to take the shots both from the camera and from the gun that will, through the miracles of cinema and taxidermy, transform the dragon into a spectacle for science and entertainment in the Hall of Reptiles at the American Museum of Natura l History. 17

Many of the transformational practices such as filtering, upgrading, and defining identified by Michael Lynch in his work on visual representation in the life sciences are evident in these final scenes. In filtering, lengthy segments of boring activit y are cut, so that each film segment conforms to the audience's visual attention span. In the process the image is also upgraded and defined: the dramatic behavioral activities of the organisms are isolated and spliced together. Dramatic sequence in fact becomes an essential narrative structure in documentary behavior films, corresponding to the dramatic scenes that movie audiences had come to expect in fiction films. The technological practices of Hollywood and scientific film are not so easily separated . While the footage of Burden and Katherine in the blind was added later to increase drama, in the hope of earning the film a theatrical release, the particular shots of the dragon's postures were latent within the real, chosen by Burden for precise reaso ns. According to Burden, the close shot of the large Komodo wrapping its jaws around the wild boar resembled "Tyrannosaurus as restored in modern paintings" and thus gave a "fairly accurate picture of the way in which carnivorous dinosaurs devoured their prey." The raised head posture of the dragon also foreshadowed another pose of the lizard, witnessed only rarely; when it sat back on its hind legs and tail, it bore a "striking though superficial resemblance to certain dinosaur restorations." 18 It was precisely these dramatic postures that were taken to codify the image of dragon behavior within the museum diorama. In the diorama, the two most spectacular postures of the dragon in the film are juxtaposed: the raised hea d posture and the jaws enveloping the wild boar (see the Frontispiece). Both of these activities occupied very short pieces of footage in the film, and they never occurred together; yet the museum goer observing the diorama takes these postures as represe ntative of the dragon's habits. Both were meant to evoke a primeval monster in a primeval time.

Although Burden was unsuccessful in his attempts to get a distributor for a theatrical release, the Komodo dragon film was shown to many audiences through established social clubs of sportsman-naturalists, including the Wilderness Club and the Boone and C rockett Club, dinner meetings of the museum trustees, private parties at the homes of New York City's social elite, such as the publisher George Putnam, and explorer-traveler organizations like the National Geographic Society. Indeed, there was such a dem and for Burden's film that Noble began delivering lectures at showings in order to generate research funds for the department. 19 The Komodo dragon film convinced Burden of the applicability of Hollywood technology to public ed ucation and entertainment, and over the next thirty years he experimented with various approaches to the visual presentation of scientific ideas, all of which incorporated central elements derived from the psychology of film. Zoos and museums had focused too intently on static display; they had not, Burden insisted, "progressed beyond the stage in the history of zoology when the majority of workers were accumulating the vast systematic data." 20 The goal of biological science in the twentieth century, Burden argued, was not classification and description but experimental inquiry into the underlying mechanisms of life. This is why Burden fought hard with the museum's board of directors to keep the Department of Experimental Biolo gy intact when Noble died suddenly of a streptococcus infection in 1940. Through the laboratory investigation of behavior, Burden believed, the biologist was unraveling the important mechanisms that governed and controlled the living organism's activities .

In the Hall of Reptiles at the American Museum, the Komodo dragon diorama was accompanied by a small projector showing clips of the animals in action. As Burden and Noble recognized, the realism of the museum diorama was not sufficient to capture the essential elements of experimental life sciences in the twentieth century. "With modern technique," Noble remarked, "it is possible to reproduce with startling realism the most beautiful scenes in nature. But the Curator's task only begins with the habita t group. He must in supplementary exhibits dissect and analyze Nature in such a way that the public will understand the principles controlling the life of the creatures portrayed." 21 Animal behavior was of central importance in biological education, Noble and Burden believed, because the study of behavior captured the dynamic activity of the organism while elucidating underlying biological processes and concepts. Drawn to the dramatic, visual aspect of the animal's activities, the audience's attention could then be turned to an investigation of the causal mechanisms governing these outward displays. Through artistic editing techniques, Burden was able to take the raw footage of Komodo dragons in the wild and recreate for the sp ectator in the metropolis a primeval scene of their life in their natural habitat, with Hollywood elements of entertainment and drama spliced in. The footage for Noble as a research scientist served different ends. His primary task was not the reconstruct ion of nature for public consumption. Rather, nature onscreen provided an important methodological tool for the further dissection and analysis of nature in the field.


Before embarking on a professional career in science, Noble, like many young amateur naturalists of his generation, had picked up the camera in place of the gun. In an unpublished essay written while an undergraduate at Harvard, Noble described his advent ures in photographing laughing and herring gulls on Muskeget Island off the coast of Massachusetts. Establishing himself in an umbrella blind, he took delight in the drama unfolding before him. "It was just like reading a novel," Noble exclaimed. "There I was, sitting comfortably on the beach under my umbrella and watching the characters of my book walking before me in actual file." 22 Twenty years later Noble would return to Muskeget Island, this time armed with both a camera and all the investigative techniques that early twentieth century endocrinology and neurology could offer.

During the first five years of the Department of Experimental Biology's operation, much of Noble's experimental research was devoted to the effects of endocrine secretions on processes such as reproduction, tooth formation, molt, and brooding reactio ns in the amphibia. Although the laboratory was originally intended to "consider many problems on the borderline between natural history and biology," Noble, facing drastic budgetary cuts, decided to limit his research to the "physiology and psychology of reproduction in the lower vertebrates." From 1935 until 1940 he developed a program of animal behavior study that utilized the techniques of endocrinology and neural surgery to establish a detailed picture of the mechanisms responsible for the evolution of courtship behavior in the vertebrates. By analyzing the courtship behavior of fishes, reptiles, birds, and finally mammals, Noble hoped to ascertain how phylogenetic changes in neural structure led to differences in social behavior patterns and to what extent display colorations and behaviors were the result of sexual selection. For Noble, behavior was to be understood through examination of the neurophysiological structures and processes ingrained in the individual organism as a consequence of its phy logenetic past. 23

Noble's analysis of the physiological and neurological mechanisms governing behavior relied heavily on detailed observations of the social behavior of organisms in their natural environment. In this field setting, film became an indispensable tool for Noble's research. Noble expressed an avid interest in the potential of cinema for research and educational purposes. He served, for example, on an advisory committee, directed by Fairfield Osborn of the New York Zoological Society, that completed a compr ehensive survey of natural history films and prepared production plans for a series of educational films on natural history subjects under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. 24 His experience behind the camera lens is evid ent in his silent color movie, The Social Behavior of the Laughing Gull, which was delivered as a motion picture demonstration at the 1940 meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union.

In The Social Behavior of the Laughing Gull, Noble returned to the site where his early interests in wildlife photography had been awakened, to the gull colonies on Muskeget. The film begins with an upward angle shot of a flock of laughing gull s landing in the dense marsh grass vegetation on Muskeget. The dark head of the laughing gull, contrasted with the white plumage of the herring gull, raises the question of why the two species should develop such different nuptial colors. The audience is led on a visual tour of the different nesting sites of the laughing and herring gull and the resulting difference in protective coloration of their young. Adult plumage, however, serves no protective function; instead, Noble argues, it has a social signif icance. The film then reconstructs the important stages in the life cycle of the laughing gull, from mating to nest building to care of the young. The scenes that follow are especially instructive in helping the audience recognize the repertoire of postur es that biologists take as significant in the laughing gull's courtship, such as the nest enticement call, head flagging, the long call, and the charging posture. Sex is the main plot line running through the story. Certain postures must be enacted before successful mating is possible. The male must achieve a superior head position over the female to secure "sexual dominance," while the female must adopt a "submissive" posture in "foodbegging." We are even witness to an alleged "rape" of an already mated female. The filter of patriarchy is apparent, as gender roles found in human society are biologically reinforced once Noble turns his gaze to the laughing gulls' world. 25 Furthermore, by juxtaposing display postures used in c ourtship with similar types used for communication between a parent and its young, Noble visually conveys the idea that much of the laughing gull's behavior is rooted in sexual drive. The first part of the film ends by returning to a shot of the dense gra ss of the laughing gull's habitat and the suggestion that the contrasting color of the laughing gull's head helps accentuate the signaling cues of the head flagging ceremony during courtship. 26

Like Burden's Komodo dragon film, the first part of Noble's movie is meant to be a realistic portrayal of the life of the laughing gull in its natural environment. No humans ever appear onscreen. It is as though the audience were in the blind on Muske get Island watching nature's drama unfold. Yet considerable dissection and analysis has already taken place in Noble's recreation of the laughing gull's world. Film technology aided Noble greatly in identifying the precise postures that serve as communica tion signals between individual birds. The final footage that we see projected on screen has been filtered through the lens of theory, experiment, and entertainment: much of the gull's life has been left on the editing room floor. This is no cinema verite .

The belief that we are watching a pristine scene of the laughing gull's world is strengthened by the contrast achieved during the second part of the film. With the description of the natural environment and behavior of the laughing gull complete, natu re must now be brought into the laboratory. Two men in a boat appear with a basket of laughing gull chicks. A shot of a young gull in winter plumage against a stark blue wall indicates that we are no longer in the field. A syringe and a box of cotton and the appearance of two human hands tell us that we have entered the world of twentieth century experimental biology. Noble's film has shifted from a nature documentary to a documentary of experimental practice. Young birds who have not reached sexual matur ity that are injected with testosterone propionate display courtship behaviors similar to those witnessed in the field. A change in the head color of the treated birds is striking visual evidence that Noble has isolated the internal physiological mechanis ms governing the laughing gull's behavior in the wild. The laboratory sequence reaffirms the conclusion alluded to in the first part of the film: that sexual drive is the pervasive force operating in the social behavior of the laughing gull. The final ver sion of the laughing gull's world as it appears onscreen a return to the wild provides a powerful visual testimonial that nature in the field and nature in the laboratory are one and the same.

The advantages that film offered in animal behavior studies were numerous. As Noble's movie illustrates, film became extremely important as an inscription device that allowed display postures to be codified onto a two-dimensional surface that could be shared among researchers. In this respect, film plays a role in science similar to that of other inscription devices such as maps, graphs, and tables. Bruno Latour has suggested that the importance of inscription devices for science stems from their prop erties of being "mobile, but also immutable, presentable, readable, and combinable with one another." Immutable mobiles, as Latour calls them, enable individuals to mobilize other allies, so that the instances of one time and place can be transported to a nother. To convince others of a particular theory about bird behavior, for instance, we do not all need to go to Muskeget Island to witness the event in question; rather, I can capture the event on a two-dimensional surface that can be presented at a prof essional meeting or mailed to other colleagues. Indeed, in 1938 the Psychological Cinema Register (PCR) was established by Adelbert Ford at Lehigh University to provide a formal institutionalized framework to support the informal film-exchange network tha t had developed among researchers in animal behavior and psychology. The PCR was transferred to Penn State University in 1944 under the direction of the primatologist C. R. Carpenter, and it quickly became the leading U.S. distributional center for behavi or films. 27

Carpenter, who received his Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford under Calvin P. Stone in 1932, did much to establish field observation techniques for the study of primate societies under natural conditions. In the early 1930s, as a postdoctoral student of the Yale comparative psychologist Robert M. Yerkes, Carpenter conducted a field study of howler monkeys on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone. In 1937 he accompanied the Asiatic Primate Expedition to study the behavior and social relations of gibbons in Siam. One year later, in conjunction with the Columbia University affiliated School of Tropical Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico, Carpenter helped establish a colony of rhesus monkeys on Cayo Santiago. Fairfield Osborn recognized that Carpenter's study of rhesus monkeys provided a unique opportunity for the production of a film on primate behavior, and the Rockefeller Foundation advisory committee contributed the film stock to document Carpenter's expedition. Relying heavily on techni ques derived from sociometric analysis and semiotic theory, Carpenter's research focused on the study of communication in primate societies. His wartime experience in the production of informational training films for jungle survival convinced him of the need to develop film and television for educational instruction at both a regional and a national level. In his own classes on primate behavior, taught at both Penn State and the University of Georgia in the postwar years, Carpenter stressed the importanc e of motion picture films for simulating field observations of primates and providing students with training in observational skills at a time when "realistic experiences in observing primates in their natural habitats [had become] progressively more impr actical and expensive." p28

Film was certainly influential in helping instruct individuals in the conventional codes used by other researchers to recognize the signs used in animal communication. Film also became an important format for the presentation of ideas at professional meetings. The animal behavior and sociobiology sessions of the American Society of Zoologists and the Ecological Society of America, which began meeting in 1947, incorporated the motion picture demonstrations that had been a standard format for paper pres entations for organizations such as the American Ornithologists' Union and the American Society of Mammalogists since the 1930s. Seeing thus became a strategy to promote believing. But film could also help researchers learn about experimental practices ad opted by other investigators. In the late 1930s Burden contributed funds so that Noble could actively import animal behavior films shot by Continental ethologists, both to show to audiences at the American Museum and to study for information on how Europe an workers conducted their experiments. Karl von Frisch was one European researcher whose films Noble collected. Von Frisch, a University of Munich physiologist who in 1973 shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology with Konrad Lorenz End Niko Tinb ergen for his contributions to the study of animal behavior, produced a number of films beginning in the 1930s on sensory recognition in bees and fish; these were masterpieces in the illustration of experimental technique and played an important role in c onvincing both scientists and lay audiences throughout the world of the validity of his theories regarding bee communication. 29

As the motion picture became a more pervasive communication medium among researchers, one might ask if and how the underlying cognitive content of the science changed in consequence. To what extent did cinematic conventions become a part of the struct uring metaphors that researchers drew upon to construct narratives of the animal world? Additionally, one might ask how dependent theoretical frameworks for understanding animal communication have been on the development of twentieth century communication technologies. The development of sonar for submarine communication systems and its role in understanding dolphin communication during the 1950s is a case in point. Did utilization of such technologies within the laboratory and in the field preclude inves tigation of other forms of communication, such as smell? The impact of film on the cognitive dimensions of animal behavior studies is too large a topic to be addressed adequately within the confines of this essay. It is safe to say, however, that film cer tainly helped to channel animal behavior studies in an experimental and theoretical direction oriented around visual communication within the animal world. This is not to suggest that visual display was not an important component of animal behavior resear ch before the advent of motion picture technology; humans are prone to strong reliance on the visual in a way that other species are not. The development of ethology owed much to a long amateur tradition of bird watching in which photography came to play an important role. European ethologists such as Lorenz and Tinbergen were themselves actively engaged in the production of film, and they developed a theoretical framework for animal behavior that centered on animal posture and visual display as signs or stimuli that triggered innate releasing mechanisms in organisms. 30 Of all the American researchers, Noble was perhaps most closely connected with this European tradition. In studying the evolution of courtship display, he was interested in unraveling the visual communication signals between mates and the underlying sensory physiology that made such communication possible. And he chose organisms that had intricate posturing ceremonies, such as black-crowned night herons, or th at went through remarkable color changes, such as jewel fish, in the process of courtship. Hence the organisms chosen as model systems for studying behavior were precisely those that would appear most spectacular on film. In this instance, the drama of Ho llywood was an integral part of the science. And while the existence of film technology enabled a more precise and exacting study of visual communication in the animal world, visual representations of animal behavior increasingly became appropriated by th e public, creating an expectation of nature among lay audiences that they would rarely, if ever, encounter in the field.


The prospects of film, not only for scientific research but for education as well, seemed to both Noble and Burden unlimited. Others shared in their enthusiasm for this new medium. The 1920s and 1930s marked a watershed in studies and discussions on the e fficacy of visual education within the elementary and secondary school curriculum. Use of motion pictures in the schools seemed to harmonize with many of the ideals of progressive education espoused by John Dewey, Alexander Meiklejohn, and others. Educati on needed to be oriented toward life experiences, and it was through experience, through adaptation and adjustment to the surrounding world, that the child learned about his or her environment. The task of the teacher, as outlined in the principles of the American Progressive Education Association in 1920, was largely motivational: to spark the interests of the child, to arouse a question, a goal, in need of satisfaction. Furthermore, teachers should encourage the use of all the senses. The child was a fu nctional whole, and one needed to include emotional development as well as intellectual learning in the educational process. Anna Verona Dorris, head of the Department of Visual Instruction at the State Teachers College in San Francisco, noted in 1928 tha t film's ability "to arouse interest, hold the attention, and compel the emotional as well as the mental comprehension that makes learning effective" made it an important resource in education. Twenty years later Herman F. Brandt, professor of psychology at Drake University, pointed to similar advantages. "The motion picture," he wrote, "representing reality as it does, provides for the growing, developing child an experience very similar to that found in real life.... Since firsthand participation is fre quently inaccessible and impractical, the motion picture provides a representation of experience in life so vivid and realistic that the observer profits from it as though it were his own experience." 31

Despite the general enthusiasm for film among educational theorists, the actual place of film in the educational curriculum before World War II remained marginal at best. Educational film faced major impediments, primarily because of the economic inte rests of Hollywood and the institutional structures in place for showing and promoting films. Burden himself experienced the hegemonic control of film distribution by the Hollywood corporate giants when he produced the acclaimed documentary The Silent Enemy, which details the life of Ojibways before the coming of Western civilization. The Silent Enemy opened in New York in 1930 to widespread critical acclaim, but it proved to be a box-office failure owing to poor promotion by Paramount and i ts lack of sound in a period when talking pictures had revolutionized the industry. Hollywood companies such as Paramount did not believe that a market existed for educational films and were reluctant to promote them, as the case of The Silent Enemy shows. Not until the invention of 16mm film in 1923 and its extensive use to disseminate information and propaganda to the public during World War II were the prospects of educational film greatly expanded. Between 1937 and 1947, for example, the number of university and college film libraries in the United States escalated from 27 to 65. Similarly, the estimated number of 16mm sound projectors jumped from 6,500 in 1936 to 100,000 in 1948. Recognizing the potential market for educational films, Hollywoo d jumped on the bandwagon in the postwar years. Walt Disney had converted his studio in wartime to the production of information films, and he became interested in the commercial market for "sugarcoated education" after the war. Seal Island, released in 1 948, was the first of Disney's True-Life Adventures, a natural history film series that included Beaver Valley, The Living Desert, The Vanishing Prairie, and The African Lion. 32

Figure 1A. One of the animal world exhibits in the Hall of Animal Behavior at the American Museum of Natural History, depicting a typical scene of chickens in a barnyard. (Negative No. 2A17238; courtesy of the Department of Library Services, Ame rican Museum of Natural History.)

The lack of markets for educational film before World War II, however, did not dissuade Noble and Burden from continuing their efforts to popularize biological subjects in a visual, dynamic framework. Movie attendance continued to escalate in America duri ng the 1930s, reaching an all-time high in 1946, and Noble's awareness of this interest in film within American popular culture was reflected in his design of the Hall of Animal Behavior that opened in a section of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the A merican Museum in June 1937. The most spectacular aspect of the exhibit, which drew considerable press commentary, was a series of six displays that depicted the way the chicken, dog, fish, fly, chameleon, and turtle experience their environments. Standin g in front of a picket fence, the visitor saw a painting of hens and a rooster in a barnyard while a story was narrated over a loudspeaker (Figure 1A). As the visitor heard the sentence "But to the hen every other hen in the yard is a personality," a new scene of the barnyard emerged in which the rooster took on enormous proportions and the sizes of the hens also changed (Figure 1B). 33

Figure 1B. The visitor is witness to a new scene, in which the size of each chicken is distorted according to the place it holds in the dominance hierarchy of the flock. (Negative No. 2A17212; courtesy of the Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History.)

According to Noble, the scene showed how hens perceive each other and illustrated the prevalence of dominance hierarchies within the animal kingdom. The story went on to describe the dominance hierarchy and the advantages that such a social system had in animal life. There is also a moral message here a message about the family and the importance of male dominance for the healthy maintenance of family life.

Noble's Hall of Animal Behavior departed from traditional museum displays in a significant way. Dioramas are static displays. The new exhibit, however, offered a dynamic framework, with the changing of scenes, of pictorial images, in front of the passive observer. Each scene is a single frame within the film narrative that, viewed as a whole, tells a story of how the evolution of neurophysiological structures in the vertebrates has affected the sensory perception of organisms and determined the way in whi ch animals relate to the external world. By incorporating this dynamic visual framework into the museum presentation, Noble believed that he was able to convey "scientific advances in biology and natural history" by going beyond labeled objects to show th e inner "functioning of the parts and the basic principles involved. " 34

Noble's hall was merely a prototype, a first venture, in experimenting with what Burden called the "new vision of learning." 35 At the same time that Noble was creating the Hall of Animal Behavior for the American Museum, he an d Burden were actively at work on another project that utilized the technology of motion pictures to create an educational and entertaining environment for the public: Marine Studios, which opened its gates to twenty-five thousand visitors on 23 June 1938 . Situated on the east coast of Florida, just south of St. Augustine, Marine Studios was another attempt by Burden to develop a dynamic, visually oriented exhibit in this instance, of undersea life. Its original impetus came from Merian Cooper's film C hang, in which a scene of an elephant stampede was shot by enclosing the animals within a stockade large enough that it would not impede their natural movements and behavior, yet small enough that camera operators could take action shots with relative ease. Burden had adopted the same technique in filming the caribou migration in The Silent Enemy, and he and Ilia Tolstoy, who had worked with Burden on The Silent Enemy, decided that a similar approach could be used to obtain underwater ac tion shots of marine life (Figure 2). With financial backing from a number of upper-class New Yorkers, Burden and Tolstoy began construction in May 1937, guided by the scientific expertise of Noble and C. M. Breder from the New York Aquarium. 36

Figure 2. The steel framework for the circular tank under construction at Marine Studios provides visual testimony to the corral-like nature of the design. (Courtesy of Marineland of Florida.)

Burden recognized the power of film to capture the audience's attention, and he designed Marine Studios with the psychology of motion picture perception in mind. Emotions, Burden argued, formed the mainspring of human interest in any subject; to capture t hem was the educator's first task. If the exhibits in Marine Studios' tanks are of sufficient intrinsic dramatic value, if they are sufficiently graceful and vivid and striking as to arouse the audience's admiration or wonder or curiosity, then it will be relatively easy to engage the spectator's attention along more serious lines." To achieve this, one needed to design the oceanarium so that the "usual distractions that are so ever-present in the exhibition halls of a museum or aquarium" were absent. One needed to create the conditions of the motion picture. "To sit comfortably in the dark and allow one's attention to be fixed on the lighted screen requires no conscious effort," Burden reasoned. "The response is automatic. Similarly, if the enclosed gall eries or corridors which run at different elevations around the entire perimeter of the tanks are so arranged that each observer can sit comfortably in relative darkness in front of his own porthole the person screened on either side by a projection or cu rtain that isolates him from the neighboring portholes and spectators, his attention will be more easily fixed on the moving exhibits beyond his own glass ports" (Figure 3). 37

Figure 3. One of the observation levels on the large rectangular tank at Marine Studios. The walls on each side of the porthole were designed to minimize distractions and to fix viewers' attention on the scene unfolding before them. (Courtesy of Marineland of Florida.)

Like the natural history film produced for public consumption, Marine Studios looked to reconstruct nature through science and entertainment. Indeed, Marine Studios is best read as a movie. The design and location of the portholes present unparalleled pho tographic opportunities (Figure 4). If we stand back from the tank wall, each porthole represents a frame in the filmstrip, freezing the animal at a point in time. But as we put our faces to the glass, we become part of the undersea world. The task of Mar ine Studios, as of the natural history film, is to create the illusion of reality. By allowing visitors to meet the natural object in reality, rather than staging scenes in front of the camera, Burden hoped to unveil the story of animal life that is laten t within the real, a story concealed from the scientist but that only science could eventually reveal. His goal in the construction of Marine Studios was to make the observer feel as though he or she was a witness to the activity of life off the coast of Florida, 75 feet below the surface. Burden became incensed when he learned of filmmaker Pete Smith's plans to include a scene of diving girls swimming in the tanks with fish in a short on Marine Studios he was producing for MGM. In a letter to Smith, Burd en noted that "Marine Studios is a serious scientific enterprise . . . where visitors may observe undersea life.... Diving girls are hardly in keeping with" such an enterprise. 38

Figure 4. The location of the portholes in the rectangular tank at Marine Studios was designed to offer unparalleled photographic opportunities. Cameras placed in front of the portholes along the angled bottom wall in the center of the picture would enable the cinematographer to film upward angle shots of marine animals without any of the walls in view. (Courtesy of Marineland of Florida)

But just as we forget all about the footage that was left on the editing floor in the making of the natural history film, the visitor to Marine Studios is similarly unaware of all that has taken place behind the scenes. The moviegoer watching a natural h istory film does not think about the outtake footage, the editing in the production room, the synchronizing of sound with images. Seated in the darkened theater, the viewer is there in Indonesia, watching the Komodo dragon engulf its prey. At Marine Studi os, the visitor is unaware of all the activities taking place in the research lab and the search for and effort to display organisms with exotic behaviors. A visitor in 1938 certainly had no knowledge of the large number of fish removed by divers each day after the tourists had gone fish infested with the parasite Epibdella, which ate out the eyes of pelagic species not immune to the diseases carried by coral reef fish. This problem was solved in the immediate postwar years by adding copper sulfate to the water, but this destroyed the colorful invertebrate corals. These are just a few of the problems faced daily by researchers at Marine Studios in its very early years. Nature, Disney-style, is not so easily constructed. 39

In its early years Marine Studios was the primary institutional center for cetacean behavior and neurophysiology research, drawing scientists from such places as the American Museum, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard Univers ity. Noble was himself enthused by the research prospects that Marine Studios could offer. In his laboratory at the American Museum he experimented with drugs that could be used as anesthetics during the capture and transport of fish to the aquarium. Mari ne Studios also sent specimens of fish brains to Noble's lab to aid in his work on the neurophysiological basis of behavior. Before his death in December 1940 Noble had outlined a whole program of research for the study of cetacean behavior that was carri ed forward by Marine Studios curator Arthur McBride with the help of the comparative psychologist Donald Hebb. 40

In an article entitled "Meet Mr. Porpoise," published in Natural History in 1940, McBride introduced readers "to one of their most human deep-sea relatives." "His astonishing habits," McBride continued, "observed at Florida's Marine Studios, re veal an appealing and playful water mammal who remembers his friends and shows a strong propensity to jealousy and grief." This public image, however, was not fully representative of the behavior of dolphins within the scientific laboratory, a contradicti on that raised delicate moral issues, especially when the intended audience became the 1950s nuclear family. Like many stars, the dolphin had another side to its private life that could not be completely revealed. When Frank Essapian submitted an article on dolphin behavior, based on his observations at Marine Studios, to Natural History in 1953, the editor asked him to omit the paragraph describing dolphin homosexual behavior. By the 1950s natural history films, especially those crafted by Disney, had become moral tales Of the family, the Aesop's fables of 1950s television culture. In a period when parenthood, domesticity, and traditional gender roles were idealized as routes to personal fulfillment, social norms came to be reinforced through anim al behavior stories that focused especially on themes such as courtship, nest building, parenting, and development of the young. 41 In one episode of Adventure, a CBS television series produced in association with the Am erican Museum of Natural History that ran from 1953 to 1956, Konrad Lorenz is portrayed as the thoroughly devoted mother to a group of young goslings that have imprinted on him. As outdoor recreation and wildlife observation became prominent features of a shift in environmental values within the 1950s American suburban home, nature became a wildly popular commodity. The important point about these 1950s natural history tales was that the natural family was an identifiable and universal category throughout the animal kingdom. This ideal of universality conformed precisely to the marketing needs of national television advertisers, who sought to project an image of the white, middle-class American family audience in which ethnic and class differences were ho mogenized. Advertisers found that they could appeal to the public's growing fascination with wildlife and at the same time legitimate their own interests in creating a homogeneous public through fables of the natural universal family. 42


Although some visual representations in science have little or no meaning beyond a select professional community that shares in conventions of representational practice and interpretation, many visual images employed in science have less fixed and stable meanings and are accessible to multiple audiences. The study of visual representation thus offers many opportunities for exploring the intersection between scientific and popular culture. In the case of animal behavior films, the same images can be approp riated by different audiences and read in different ways. The head flagging ceremony of the laughing gull in Noble's film, for example, has a very precise meaning to an audience of professionally trained ethologists. Yet the same footage might be employed for comic relief in a Disney True-Life Adventure. Even in a professional context such as a meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union, the element of popular spectacle is not completely absent from animal images, for the biologist inhabits many social worlds. 43

The problem with a diffusionist model of popularization is that it ignores the permeability of boundaries within scientific culture. Yet there are always avenues of potential transfer and influence from other cultural domains. As this essay has sugges ted, analysis of film as a methodological tool in the study of animal behavior can reveal a good deal about the problems facing practitioners of traditional natural history in the light of twentieth century experimental life sciences. But the place and fu nctions of film as a research tool in science cannot be entirely separated from the social practices and expectations that came to characterize the place and functions of film in American popular culture. Furthermore, in analyzing visual representation in science, much more work needs to be done to understand the relationships between representational practices and the cognitive content of science.

Within the science of animal behavior, film as both a methodological and a marketing tool became a pervasive force throughout the United States after World War II. The influx of films and ideas from Continental ethologists sparked a revival in natural istic field studies and a preoccupation with communication signaling, both visual and auditory, in animal societies. In the 1950s Walt Disney became the master at appropriating images of animal behavior, many of which were photographed by biologists in th e field, to construct entertaining tales of family life. His True-Life Adventures brought the glamour and excitement of life in the field to the 1950s suburban home. Zoos were forced to respond, developing more naturalistic surroundings for their animal exhibits, while museums built large screen Cinemax theaters and offered more dynamic, interactive displays.

The visual perspective of film and television has indeed become the metaphor by which we understand and represent the animal world. Yet although film as the structuring metaphor has, like all metaphors, opened up new avenues for investigation, it has also constrained our perceptions and understanding of nature in certain ways. Glamour species dolphins, for instance have been widely utilized by zoos, museums, and environmental groups to enlist public support for conservation efforts, but this strategy has proven increasingly problematic, focusing public attention on a few species without conveying an adequate understanding of the need to preserve whole ecosystems. In a recent exhibit of the koala, the Bronx zoo placed a video loop of the animal in acti on next to the live specimens. Koalas spend most of their time in a lethargic state, and visitors were not content to stand around waiting for something to happen. There is always drama in the Nature series broadcast on the American public televisi on network PBS; scientists and the public alike have become part of the media spectacle in the post-Hollywood age. 44