Date of Award

December 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



First Advisor

William Warner Wood

Committee Members

Dawn Scher Thomae, Jean Hudson


Elephant, Ivory, Material Culture Studies, Museum Studies, Political Ecology, Walrus


The museum paradigm shift, first identified by Weil (1990), is evident in the transformations of the poetics and politics of ivory collecting and display over the past 25 years. Based upon Igor Kopytoff's (1986) "biographical" approach to material culture, this thesis demonstrates how ivory in museums has accumulated substantial and diverse cultural meaning, priming it for fluctuation according to modern-day culture shifts. Evidence of fluctuations in the social understanding of ivory is based on a new political ecology, which recognizes that a socially constructed nature underpins wildlife conservation efforts and cultural responses to extinction, both biological and cultural. The interpretation of ivory as a symbol of extinction may reflect Western global conservation ideologies. A visitor study (47 respondents) at the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) and an online survey of museum professionals (88 respondents), four artifact biographical sketches from the African and Inuit collections, and examples of ivory on permanent exhibit at the MPM are used to demonstrate shifts in museum practice and attitude. This thesis documents the changing meaning of ivory among visitors to the MPM yet finds a limited dialogue of modern interpretation by museum professionals throughout the United States. In the midst of these debates, ivory is one of the principal forms of material culture in the modern construction of nature.