Dioramas Get Face-Lift

For nearly 90 years, the realistic animal habitat scenes of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University have captivated generations of visitors. Now two of the oldest and rarest ones will undergo a total renovation for the first time, and the public can watch the action unfold.

From mid-February through April, conservators and artists will clean and renovate every inch of the beautiful Takin and Gorilla wildlife scenes. New lighting and labels will be installed; peels and cracks in the background paintings will be repaired; layers of dust will be removed; drooping tree branches will be propped; curled leaves will be replaced; and in a few instances errors will be corrected.

The Gorilla diorama opened in 1938 with animals and plants collected by the George Vanderbilt Expedition in 1934 to what is now the Central African Republic.

Visitors will be able to peer through large viewing windows into the temporary workspaces as the renovations progress. At times, they will be able to talk with the workers and with museum educators who may offer a mammal pelt or bone to compare to the animals in the dioramas. It will be a unique opportunity to see what the dioramas look like without glass and to examine the scientific and artistic elements as the experts take the habitat scenes apart and put them back together.

“Quality museum dioramas embody a compelling fusion of art and science,” said Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper. “The Academy’s dioramas are well known to generations of visitors. They are engrained in the fabric of Philadelphia, and they represent our rich history of scientific exploration and discovery.”

On Feb. 13, a team of (very strong!) Philadelphia glaziers will carefully lift off the 12-by-8-feet sheets of glass that weigh hundreds of pounds and that have sheltered the gorillas and takins in the forested scenes within for eight decades. The first phase of the renovation after the glass comes off involves replacing the old lighting with dramatic, state-of-the-art illumination.

Then the conservators, artists and taxidermists set up shop inside the dioramas. On March 5 taxidermists move in to tackle the takin and on April 9 they move in on the gorilla. Touch-screen digital labels will be installed in early fall that will provide videos, sounds, and interactive games that will engage visitors in the natural world.

About the Dioramas

“Like the American Museum of Natural History, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has some of the finest natural history museum dioramas in existence. Because of the time periods during which they were created, many of the same artists worked in both of our museums and shared many of the unique art forms and methods that make these dioramas such great works of art. … Natural history dioramas, especially those whose expeditions and creation are well documented like yours, are unique works of art and science that recreate nature within the walls of the natural history museum.”

So wrote Stephen Quinn, former director of exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History, in a letter of support to the Academy. Quinn was a consultant on the Academy’s dioramas and oversaw the New York museum’s yearlong restoration of the Hall of North American Mammals dioramas six years ago.

The Takin Diorama opened in 1935 with animals and plants collected by the Dolan West China Expedition.

The Academy began building glassed-in animal habitat scenes in the 1930s when there was no television and it was almost impossible for anyone to get to the remote parts of the world.

“The idea was to create or recreate those habitats so that visitors to the museum could see and experience that part of the world firsthand,” said Academy Senior Fellow Robert Peck. “The dioramas show as much about habitat as they do about the animals themselves. Because of habitat loss in nature, these preserved sections of the world are more important than ever for us to be able to show in our dioramas.”

The more than 30 dioramas were thought out long in advance, and certain animals were identified as being particularly important or interesting. The Academy sent teams of scientists who knew the plants and animals, photographers who documented the exact setting, and artists who sketched the scenes and made molds for plants, rocks, and other habitat elements.

A team of Academy artists and scientists recreated the scenes with as much accuracy as possible, and dozens of additional artists meticulously prepared background paintings and specimens for display. All the documentation from these expeditions remain in the Academy archives.

Over the course of their long history, the dioramas have changed very little. Except for receiving rare cleaning and repairs, and occasional updates to the interpretive panels, they appear today much as they did when they were first unveiled. Indeed, their reliable presence has charmed many visitors who recall seeing them as children.

“We’d like to raise funds to help more of our dioramas look as fresh and realistic as possible, while telling stories of the natural world that are relevant to today’s visitors,” said Cooper. “This is a wonderful start.”

Academy Dolan Expedition to the China-Tibet border where the takin were collected. These are local men hired to help. 1931. ANS Archives Coll 64

Takin Diorama, Asian Hall

The Takin (rhymes with rockin’) Diorama opened in 1935 with animals and plants collected by the Dolan West China Expedition, 1931-32, to the base of the Himalayas, along the Tibetan/Chinese border. Takins are goat-antelope-like plant eaters. Their conservation status is “threatened” largely due to habitat loss, climate change, disturbance from tourism, hunting and disease.

In the moody scene, four takins are grazing in a lush cloud forest surrounded by lush rhododendron, orchid, spruce and fern plants. The renovation is being funded through a generous gift from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

Fun fact: When an Academy botanist compared the plant models in the diorama with notes in the archives, he found that two types of fern did not belong there. They will be removed.

Taxidermists and artists prepare one of the gorillas for its diorama debut in 1938. ANS Archives Coll 718

Gorilla Diorama, African Hall

The Gorilla Diorama opened in 1938 with animals and plants collected by the George Vanderbilt Expedition in 1934 to what is now the Central African Republic. Their conservation status is “critically endangered” largely due to hunting for bushmeat and habitat loss from the logging industry.

The scene depicts three male Western Lowland Gorillas arranged to look like a family group. The renovation is being funded by generous gifts from Lucille Vanderbilt Pate and the Vandy Charitable Foundation.

Fun fact: A model of an unidentified plant with dull (very dusty) berries turns out to represent the Marble Berry Plant famous for its blue berries, which are among the brightest biological substances in nature. Artists plan on giving them a good touch-up.

For more information, visit the ansp.org/exhibits/diorama-renovations.


Post by Carolyn Belardo


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