Dioramas Q&A, Part 1

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.

Over the course of their long history, the Academy’s dioramas have changed very little. Except for receiving rare cleaning and occasional updates to the single interpretive panels that accompany each window, they appear today much as they did when they were first unveiled in the 1930s. Their reliable presence has charmed many visitors who, upon seeing them again, recall a childhood visit long ago.

Over the years, several studies comprised of evaluators, conservators, and exhibit experts have all reached the same conclusions: The Academy’s dioramas are a valuable tool for engaging visitors. Their content, reinterpreted, is as relevant to our mission as ever. This winter and spring, the Academy is embarking on a major effort to clean, restore, and reinterpret these moments in history.

Takin diorama at the Academy of Natural SciencesThe Academy has received generous gifts enabling the renovation and reinterpretation of two of its most important habitat dioramas. From the Vandy Charitable Foundation, we received support to renovate the Gorilla habitat diorama, collected during George Vanderbilt’s 1934 African Expedition. Thanks to a significant gift from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Academy will restore the rare diorama of the Takin, a large mountain goat collected in 1931 from a richly diverse natural area on the Sichuan/Tibet border. We are extremely grateful for these donations—without them, this work would not be possible.

Just as the work began, we sat down with Senior Director of Exhibits and Public Spaces Jennifer Sontchi to answer a few questions about dioramas and what we can expect this spring.

Ok, let’s get the big question out of the way. Are dioramas real?

Yes and no. Our dioramas are highly accurate depictions of real places in the world. The animals in them are the real animals found in, and taken from, those sites. Dioramas tell a real story of interplay between the large animal that might be in the center of the diorama and its environment, so when you’re looking at a diorama, you are looking at a real ecosystem.

While the animals are preserved by taxidermy—the art of preserving animals in a lifelike way—and some of the features of the foreground, such as rocks, or soil, may have been brought back to the museum from the original site depicted, the rest is painstakingly handmade by artists from detailed notes and studies made on location during the original expedition.

Gorilla diorama at the Academy of Natural SciencesHow were the dioramas built?

Most of the Academy dioramas were created in the 1930s through the 1960s. Museum artists and naturalists traveled together on expeditions to remote parts of the world and carefully documented what they found. The backdrop paintings are intricate reproductions of the exact place that the diorama was depicting and the landscape surrounding the featured animal. You can look for what direction the sun was coming from, what the weather was like that day, and what time of year it was. Every single thing you see in the diorama is intentionally placed there and is likely handmade—each plant, tree, flower, stone, and pond created to be identical to its inspiration in the field. Our naturalists collected the animals they wanted to share with museum visitors and brought them back to the museum to undergo the process of taxidermy.

Wait, so the animals were killed so that they could become part of the diorama?

Yes. The dioramas were intended to give visitors a look at parts of the world they could never have seen otherwise. While it seems hypocritical of a museum to taxidermy animals it claims to want to protect, the number of animals added to museum collections isn’t high enough to affect a species.

In fact, seeing animals in dioramas has inspired some activists to introduce conservation measures that have protected many species and natural habitats. Dioramas bring awareness of the fragility of nature to hundreds of thousands of people.

What can dioramas tell us about habitats around the world?

Dioramas tell stories of exploration, habitat loss, conservation, artistry, and evolution, preserving a snapshot of a specific location at a recorded time. The intense documentation that goes into them enables researchers to track changes over time in biodiversity and habitat due to climate change or other impacts.

We can trace a rich history of each place by comparing the habitat in the diorama to the century of impacts we might find there today. Which animals and plants still exist? What has changed and why? And how have diorama artists played an important role in educating visitors about planetary and social issues?

Our conversation with Jennifer Sontchi will continue on the blog on February 19, 2018. Please check back for updates! in the meantime, find out about the diorama renovation coming up this spring.

This article was originally written for the winter 2018 issue of Academy Frontiers

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