Figure 10: “Zoo education movement,” Julian Sorell Huxley – Papers, 1899–1980, MS 50, Series XI: Clippings, Box 136: 1909–1939, Folder 5: Biographical Materials, 1931–1939: The Evening Standard, Jan. 5, 1935. Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
These potentialities of film mattered to Huxley. After his mission for the Colonial Office Advisory Committee on Native Education in East Africa at the end of the 1920s, he propagated the use of film in education and for the causes of nature conservation. During his zoo years, he aspired to imitate the American Museum of Natural History and install little penny-driven-machines that would show the zoo animals in their natural environments (Mitman 1999: 74-75). He also struggled to follow other parks in their production of films as well as in placing a cinema on the zoo grounds. It would screen not only his own and others’ animal documentaries; even animated cartoons would be run, particularly those by Walt Disney. Their humanized animal characters – Mickey Mouse acquired sound in 1928 – might, too, foster a love of animals. In fact, during Huxley’s directorship, British Pathé made a series of short sound films at the London Zoo styled after the Disney animated movies. In these, the animals were anthropomorphized to such an extent that they were completely overwritten. A fundamental technique to turn them into comic characters in the way of Mickey Mouse was to let them speak in the human language through voice-over – only rarely interspersed with their own sounds (see and hear for example VideoObject 1: bears and VideoObject 2: consensus).
In fact, Huxley criticized nature documentaries for lacking humor. Nevertheless, he also wanted to present animal life seriously. He believed that films documenting the behavior of animals, including their sounds, could convey their concerns to people. In 1935, he signed a contract with London Film Productions for advice and supervision in the production of short nature sound films, and he supervised the production of nature films for use in schools by Gaumont-British Instructional. In 1937, Zoological Film Productions was established as a subsidiary of Strand Films, producing footage of zoo animals, among other things. In 1935, Huxley gave twelve radio interviews on the making of nature films. One of his greatest concerns was that the films might merely end up in cold storage, invisible to the public. To prevent this from happening, in parallel to the example of a Sound Institute and in the year the National Film Library was established (today British Film Institute National Archive), Huxley advocated for the establishment of national as well as international film libraries that should catalogue and store films in several copies to facilitate lending.
Such libraries would also facilitate the instrumentalization of the medium of film in the attempt to promote evolutionary progress and preserve the evolutionary heritage that was fundamental to it. Huxley believed that in the cultural stage, evolutionary progress consisted of adapting human idea systems to a growing knowledge about the natural world (rather than, as in biological evolution, the human body to natural environments). So the main function of film, just as with printing and recording, would be the production, preservation, and distribution of such knowledge. Huxley felt a certain “bewilderment” or even “despair” at the “number of things” there were in nature (Huxley 1931: 139), resulting from this desire to document, catalogue, and understand everything – or vice versa. Also, nature film and its sound – neatly stored for efficient and long-term distribution – was part of this goal of a global reconnaissance and should at the same time in particular inspire the will to preserve “unmediated” natural diversity.
Huxley’s greatest success in this regard was The Private Life of the Gannets (Huxley 1934), made for Alexander Korda. It was shown at hundreds of cinemas in the country; it was even presented at the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in Venice and won the Academy Award for best short subject in 1937. It was made on the Island of Grassholme, off the coast of Wales and one of the largest breeding colonies of gannets. It shows the birth, adolescence, courtship and rearing of young. However, it differentiates itself from the individualizing and anthropomorphic way that Disney portrayed nature. It presents, instead, an ecological vision ending with a plea for the care of the animals and their habitats – this plea was rendered by a human voice, while the animals remained silent (see and hear VideoObject3: The Private Life of the Gannets).
However, it is in fact through the way Disney came to portray nature that we gain further insight into the connection not only between zoo/nature films and animated cartoons but also between nature films and conservation. A closer look at Mickey Mouse and Co. again raises the question of who is heard. In 1949, Walt Disney Studios launched the first short feature nature flick, Seal Island (James Algar), intended for entertainment as well as to educate viewers about the “last frontier” of Alaska (see and hear VideoObject 4: Seal Island). Although supposedly on a pristine habitat and produced in association with the Fish and Wildlife Service, it combined the natural vocalizations of the animals with voice-over, in order to project on the animals – in a farcical way – human gender stereotypes and the rule of the male patriarch over his females. Its great success – winning an Academy Award for best short subject – was immediately followed by more such “true-life adventures.” In fact, throughout the 1950s, the commercialization of animals in films remained a Disney monopoly, and the studios began producing feature-length nature films. For example, in 1955, The African Lion (James Algar) celebrated the marvelous diversity of the great African mammals. But despite the promise of authenticity, the true-life adventures resembled the early animated cartoons, and in the cinemas they were shown with animated movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) or Cinderella (1950). So, we can observe an interesting circularity there, because the animated cartoons, again, were based on the study of living animals.
Yet, it has also been speculated that the true-life adventures were inspired by Huxley’s The Private Life of the Gannets. Another hypothesis is that they followed the tradition of the Pathé zoo films, such as those made at the London Zoo during Huxley’s secretaryship, which had themselves attempted to imitate Disney cartoons with real animals, decades before Disney himself. These various influences – of the animated cartoon, the zoo and nature film – are not mutually exclusive, and they all point to the fact that the true-life adventures were about drama and laughter, so much so, that one commentator criticized the representation of “beavers and otters in Beaver Valley as though they were scampish little animated animals right out of Bambi or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (in Mitman 1999: 121). The animals were rendered as individuals, and to create a personality for them, the techniques of synchronizing their actions with music or humorously re-applying their own sounds were instrumental. Whether showing living or drawn ones, Disney’s animals were animated (see and hear VideoObject 5: Beaver Valley; in Beaver Valley, the croaking of frogs is accompanied by a sextet – “the frog symphony”).
At the same time – like Huxley’s Gannets – the true-life adventures were associated with conservation. Disney won the Audubon Medal for conservation in 1955, and films like The Vanishing Prairie (1954, James Algar), which won the Academy Award for best documentary, were advertised to schools. In The Vanishing Prairie, the spectators watched animals endangered by the “relentless advance of civilization” (in Mitman 1999: 115; see VideoObject 6: Vanishing Prairie). Like Huxley, conservationists welcomed the Disney productions because they acquainted a mass public with the threats facing nature and animals. Indeed, some of these films were influential in raising awareness for preservation issues, and conservationist organizations took advantage of this. Thus, the Conservation Foundation, the New York Zoological Society, and the Wilderness Society sponsored Letter From the Brooks Range, which was instrumental in the establishment of the Arctic Wildlife Range in 1960. Nonetheless, there was a certain discomfort regarding the proclaimed authenticity, and this included a critique of the use of sound. The ornithologist Arthur A. Allen from Cornell University, one of the pioneers of wildlife sound recording in America (Bruyninckx 2012), supplied Disney with sound recordings and film footage of animals. But, he insisted that picture and soundtrack correspond to each other; he gave his consent to the cooperation only when Disney assured him of that and emphasized that the true-life adventures were primarily for the purpose of conservation.
As Figure 10 shows, Huxley was a fan of Disney, precisely because he recognized this potential. He was impressed by the material the film-maker-adventurers accumulated for the Disney Studios, and when planning a conference on ritualization in humans and animals in the 1960s, he asked Disney for rare footage, for example of the mating behavior of crested grebes. However, Disney’s alliance with conservationists came to an end shortly thereafter when Disney made plans for a skiing resort, including roads cutting through Sequoia National Park in 1966. By that time, the true-life adventures with their multifaceted and often contradictory use of sound had been launched on TV and further adapted for home use as rental films (on the true-life adventures, see Mitman 1999: ch. 5).
While these developments were taking place in the USA, Huxley had achieved much in areas concerning the conservation of natural as well as cultural heritages. When he was elected as first director-general of UNESCO in 1946, he included in its agenda the establishment of national parks and, among several other cultural institutions, a world library. In his vision, UNESCO should promote all methods of storage, reproduction, and diffusion, such as microfilm. It was to extend the concept of library collections to include films, pictures, and records (Huxley 1946). Huxley actually managed to get a UNESCO resolution passed that stipulated that the British Trust of Ornithology was to take care of Koch’s sound recording collection. However, it turned out that the trust lacked the necessary funds. The BBC, however, expressed its interest. Thanks to Huxley’s intervention, Koch had worked for the BBC, recording farm animals, factory and other urban noises, among other things. In 1948, Koch was hired to arrange his collection for preservation at the BBC Recorded Programs Library. He extended the collection, and he refined his own voice, too, making his heavily exaggerated German accent a trademark of his popular radio broadcasts. However, only in 1980 would UNESCO call for the preservation of film footage and sound records as part of the cultural heritage (cooperating with the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives 1969).
Together with his networks of friends, scientists, and conservationists, and through his position at UNESCO, Huxley tried to coordinate the preservation of living animals as well as those transmitted onto audiovisual media worldwide. Still in office, he became involved in the establishment of the first global conservationist organization, the International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUPN), in 1948. Affiliated with UNESCO, it connected governmental bodies, NGOs, and experts. In England, it was followed by the establishment of Nature Conservancy (1949) and the Council for Nature (1958). An important factor for the success of Huxley’s conservationist concerns were the sympathies he was able to arouse through his portrayal of the endangerment of the African megafauna. In articles for the Observer that were published after his travels to south, east, and central Africa to report on wildlife and natural habitat for UNESCO, he described the sight of these animals in the wild as “comparable with the sight of a noble building or the hearing of a great symphony or mass” (Huxley 1960: 23). In this discourse, Africa’s natural diversity was presented as a heritage encompassing Pliocene landscapes and Pleistocene animals. The description of the animal land- and soundscapes of Africa as well as likening the experience of animal observation to the experience of listening to music moved many readers; the Observer articles initiated a process that culminated in the foundation of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1961 (Sommer 2016: ch. 9).