The exceptional life of Jumbo the circus elephant, from whose enormity the English language gets the word “jumbo,” will be chronicled in an upcoming exhibition this September in the Tufts Art Gallery, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford.
The exhibition, titled “Jumbo: Marvel, Myth and Mascot,” will feature an array of pictures, circus posters, and advertisements showing the elephant’s ascension from a circus animal to a part of American culture and history.
Jumbo, who lived from 1861 to 1885, was taken from Africa as a calf and spent his early years in zoos in Paris and London — giving rides to the likes of Queen Victoria’s children and Winston Churchill — until being purchased by P.T. Barnum for $10,000 in 1881. After weeks attempting to coax Jumbo onto a ship, Barnum finally succeeded and brought him to America, where he performed and traveled with the Barnum & Bailey Circus until he was killed in a train accident in Canada at the age of 24.
“Jumbo connects to a lot of things in American history,” said Tufts University Art History Prof. Andrew McClellan, who has spent the last eight years preparing the exhibition. “Everybody knew Jumbo when he was alive and this exhibition is to bring some of that history out; how popular and how famous he was.”
Barnum marketed Jumbo when he was alive as much as possible, perhaps most notably marching him across the Brooklyn Bridge when it opened to prove the bridge safe.
After his death, Jumbo was stuffed by Carl Akeley as one of the first and most famous examples of taxidermy.
From there, Barnum, a trustee at Tufts University, displayed Jumbo’s body in his circus for four years until giving the animal to the university to be featured in the newly built science building in 1889. Jumbo remained there for almost 100 years until a fire burned down the entire building in 1975.
Now, 125 years after Jumbo’s arrival on campus, McClellan said the exhibition will convey all the aspects of the tragic life of Jumbo as a captive animal.
“He spent his life amusing human beings,’ he said. “He really illustrates the plight of animals being subjected to the whims of human beings.”
McClellan will publish a book on Jumbo coinciding with the exhibition, which will run from Sept. 4 to Dec. 7.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.