Dioramas Q&A, Part 2

For more than 90 years, the habitat dioramas of the Academy of Natural Sciences have captivated generations of visitors. Taken individually, each of these windows into the wilderness provides an intimate encounter with dramatic animals in their habitats. They reveal the wondrous variety and bounty of flora and fauna of our natural world.

On February 7, we published part 1 of our conversation with Jennifer Sontchi, the Academy’s senior director of exhibits and public spaces. For today’s installment, we talked about the renovations and what we can expect to see this spring.

What happens to dioramas as they age?

In the absence of regular cleaning and maintenance, diorama surfaces develop accumulations of dust and grime, as well as color fading, open cracks, and peeling paint. The interpretive graphics become dated and need to be updated so they are accessible, engaging, and educational for today’s audiences.

Gorilla diorama at the Academy of Natural SciencesWhat do we need to consider when renovating a diorama?

A diorama is an artwork, so we have to consider whether the diorama should be brought back to its original form or we should attempt to enhance it. Will we restore, conserve, or preserve the diorama? The Academy has assembled conservators and other experts to thoroughly address these questions and provide recommendations.

What is actually involved in the work of renovating the dioramas?

The only way to access our Gorilla and Takin dioramas is to remove the glass! Once specialist glaziers safely set aside the enormous panes (below), a lighting design team will enter the diorama at the top to remove the old lighting fixtures and replace them with new LED lamps. The colors and directions of the lights will help tell the story of what time of day, weather, and season the diorama depicts.

Diorama glass removal at the Academy of Natural SciencesNext, expert conservators will examine and document the backgrounds, foregrounds, plants, and animals in each diorama. Conservators will work from the back of the diorama to the front, starting with cleaning the background painting. They then remove diorama elements, such as taxidermy and plants, as needed, to gently vacuum and clean with water and cotton swabs. They may also color faded fur, prop up drooping plants, and remake leaves and flowers that have cracked or curled. Everything then goes back exactly where it came from, and specialists clean and replace the glass. When the work concludes, you’ll see a fresher, brighter, more realistic version of that time and place.

Can I watch the work taking place?

Yes, work is scheduled for late this winter and spring, but since we can’t fully predict how the work will evolve, we recommend you check our Facebook page regularly for updates!

Read part 1 of our conversation on what dioramas are and why they matter with Jennifer Sontchi.

This article was originally written for the winter 2018 issue of our member magazine, Academy Frontiers.

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