Dioramas: the theater of science and discovery

A diorama of ducks at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS)

It’s a busy Saturday afternoon at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science but there are no lines for any of the exhibits. Free to go wherever one pleases, wandering the museum’s dimly lit halls takes on a quality of discovery, every visitor creating their own experience which, since its inception in 1900, has been the Museum’s singular intention. Whether at one of the newer exhibits, taking a virtual reality trip through outer space, or in one of the the oldest, a 1919 diorama of the now extinct passenger pigeon, each visitor is offered the opportunity not just to visit an impossible place, but to experience it.

Even though modern museum-goers increasingly demand high-tech experiences (the entrance to the virtual reality exhibit is framed with the words, “we heard you,” as if to say the exhibit exists only because it’s what the people wanted), the seed of each exhibit still lies in the original innovation of the diorama.

A handmade paper flower made as a study for a diorama, now in the Denver Museum of Natural History archives. Sarah Haas

The word “diorama,” which comes from the Greek for “to see through,” was first used in the modern sense by French artist Louis Daguerre who, in the 1820s, devised a box that could illuminate theatrical backgrounds from behind, changing the nature of the scene. Eventually, these scenes evolved to include 3D objects and, by the 1880s, the trick was picked up by natural history museums across the world as a way to display their collections. The original idea was that, in borrowing theatrical hacks, the museums would likewise be able to suspend the viewer’s disbelief long enough to entertain the concepts at play in each and every diorama. From there, museums hoped the viewer would come to care about nature and so become its steward.

But, more than 100 years later, as reported by Menachem Wecker for Smithsonian.com in 2016, museums across the country are wrestling with the dilemma of what to do with dioramas in the 21st century, when the art form seems antiquated at best. Some, like the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., have decided to downsize or scrap their collections altogether. But at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where the tactile displays still have three floors of real estate, director of zoology John Demboski says their eradication is not an option. In part, this is because the dioramas are, in themselves, historical art objects. But just as importantly they are still, even a century later, just as effective as scientific and educational tools as they ever were.

Johnny Woods

Demboski explains that hidden deep in the innards of the museum and well out of the public eye, 4.5 million specimens and artifacts are kept as “vouchers” for the items on display on the floor. These items have been collected since the 1870s, a swelling archive of Mother Nature herself, preserved and studied in the name of scientific understanding. Arguably, this is why the museum exists, so that life can be kept, recorded and better understood, but the museum’s goal is decidedly more public facing, its mission “to ignite the community’s passion for nature and science.” It is the museum’s belief that the dioramas were, and continue to be, the best way to present the archives to the people so as to truly excite and engage the public.

One need only see the interaction between people and the dioramas to recognize their effect, and on this particular Saturday afternoon, when the Wildlife Halls are bustling with hundreds of people standing silhouetted against more than 90 lit displays, such engagements are plentiful. Take for instance a young couple holding hands in front of the Alaskan tundra, found deep inside of one of the museum’s maze-like halls.

It would appear to be fall, the mountain background painted in oxidized reds and aspen-leaf yellows. In the foreground, thousands of individually painted leaves echo the alpine hues. To the couple’s left stands a herd of caribou caught in the midst of their trek down to lower elevations, where they will live out the harsh winter. To the right are two behemoth moose traveling higher up as they are wont to do in the coldest months.

Johnny Woods

The tundra diorama contains a chance encounter between these two species. René O’Connell, an archivist for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, says that in real life, it’s rare that the two should meet. Nonetheless, it’s possible, and so, when the scene was being sculpted in the early 1970s, its creators leveraged it as a moment of subtle but high drama that would invite the audience’s attention.

The result is uncanny. The caribou, appearing to be in the middle of steps that never land, don’t just look alive but as if they are in motion. The moose seem to be making the decision to let them pass without a fuss. The young couple watches on for awhile as if to wait and see if the scene will reach its conclusion, but it won’t. And so, eventually, the spectators will move on from this little instance of theater, frozen in time, and the boyfriend will whisper to the girlfriend, “It’s hard to believe it’s not real.”

This, the veracity of the diorama, is forever a matter of debate, one that, like the caribou’s footsteps, will never fall on the side of right or wrong, but always hover somewhere in the middle. In some ways, these exhibits are as real as it gets: The animals were hunted (or in museum speak “collected”) by museum staff of yesteryear, old-school natural historians whose job it was to trek into the wilderness and document its exact conditions.

Courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

These scientists, collecting specimens and detailing conditions, were also swashbuckling adventurers, living for months in the field so they could kill the very real animals now standing immemorial behind walls of glass. With blood and sweat on their hands, they knew the death of each specimen was crucial for the art of bringing nature back to life. Because they were also rugged artists, sculptors taking plaster molds of burrows and plein-air painters sketching a place in detail so it could later be exacted from thousands of miles away.

Once back home in their museum labs and studios, the explorers would take to deconstructing the specimens they’d collected, taking apart animals and plants so their pieces could be replicated in paper and wax and fiberglass before being put back together. It would take years for them to do this painstaking work. It is in light of this scrupulous attention to detail that their work earns its gravity because the goal was not merely mimicry of the natural world, but the replication of the feeling of being there.

Bill Berry painting the background for the Moose-Caribou Diorama in North American Mammal Hall. 1973,74.3 Courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

At different points in time, the diorama artists used different techniques to transport viewers. According to O’Connell, up until the 1950s the background artists were decidedly atmospheric in their approach, creating illusions of depth through faded colors and blurred details in their murals. The artists knew that the viewer’s mind would take the detailed foreground and subconsciously supplant its suggestions upon the scene at large. But by the 1970s there were new artists on staff using new techniques of realism, painting sharp images on the background that left little work to the imagination.

These days, it’s a matter of personal taste which one prefers, but both can be said to achieve the same sensation of being in a certain place at a precise moment in time, at least almost. For while the scene is meant to feel real, it is, as the boyfriend reminds us, not. It is an illusion, one designed to be seen by the viewer who holds a predetermined perspective.

Caribou Moose Diorama from behind the scenes. Sarah Haas

There is another way to see each diorama, though. Most of them are equipped with a seemingly ordinary door that acts like a portal to another world, for as soon as you turn the corner the illusion goes kaput. Just out of the viewer’s line of sight, the background mural abruptly stops and the foreground, which appeared a rugged mountain pass, is actually just scaffolding covered with plaster and a thin layer of dust. Some of the caribou aren’t even all the way on the platform, but hover, somehow, in the middle. In all ways, the diorama is a fabrication and its effectiveness depends on its ability to hide parts of itself from the viewer so that they might forget the line between the real and the fake altogether, losing themselves in the scene instead.

But in this modern time, when museums say “we heard you” and design a virtual reality exhibit instead of a new diorama, it seems audiences are clamoring not for suspension of disbelief but for total immersion in the spectacle instead. And while one solution might be to give the people what they think they want, another might be to insist on the tangibly real, to face the diorama’s intended illusion head on, and to dispel it.

Of course, this would come with a risk — breaking the rules always does — but as society creeps toward a cultural merger of the real and the fake, perhaps we can reclaim some magic by admitting how our tricks are performed.

For example, when viewing the Cheetah in the African Hall and gawking at the way his feet stir up permanent clouds of dust, does it ruin the illusion to know that it’s nothing but an effect achieved by thin sheets of acetone, scuffed with brown paint? Or, are we inspired by knowing that the impalas he is chasing are standing on a maze of rebar armaments, running from one through the other, as can be seen if one crouches down to the floor? Do either of these facts make the question posed by the placards, “Will the Cheetah catch the Impala?” any less evocative?

And while the Denver Museum of Nature and Science makes a statement by keeping its dioramas, it’s worth noting that long ago the museum let go of its diorama staff, save for the custodial crew tasked with cleaning the glass and occasionally dusting the exhibits themselves.

If and when new diorama needs pop up, usually for restoration’s sake, freelance taxidermists and muralists are employed. And the museum no longer sends people out to “collect” new specimens. Instead, they rely on never-ending streams of donated dead things: road kill donated from state or federal agencies, or the dead birds that accumulate, both inside and out, at Denver International Airport. These new specimens will most likely arrive and stay in the museum’s hidden archives where they will be reserved for scientific needs.

Wolves in the Alaskan Tundra Johnny Woods

Which is to say that to look toward the future of the museum diorama is to look toward the preservation of those that already exist. Any new spending will go toward remodeling the halls, probably to make them more interactive and user-friendly.

To be fair though, any pronouncement of the death of the diorama would be premature. To the contrary, the profession of taxidermy is, according to the London Taxidermy Academy, experiencing something of a modern resurgence, as private markets swell with demand for dead animals brought back to life and new artisans lining up to be trained in their morbid production.

It seems that, faced with a dying planet, memento mori, Latin for “remember you will die,” is once again relevant, both in practice and philosophy, and that there may be no better symbol for the fate we are beginning to imagine for our planet, and our species, than the nature diorama itself. If art is the human expression of the soul, it is only fitting that its ultimate form would be that of putting the dead on display so that we might better understand the point of all this living. And yet it’s a tad ironic that the diorama, conceived as a means to achieve our planet’s conservation, now threatens to stand a totem of its fate.

But all hope is not lost, for on this particular Saturday afternoon, when the diorama halls are bustling, there is proof that people are still drawn, like moths to a flame, to the dramatic light of the diorama. An elderly man stands in front of a pride of African lions and tells his grown daughter about a long-ago trip he took to Botswana. A family in the Colorado room remembers a time when they were high up in the subalpine and saw a marmot, just like the one on the other side of the glass. And a little girl, pretending to talk into her mother’s cell phone, peers into a diorama, describing it to her imaginary friend, a smile widening across her face as she does.

She tells about the cactuses, squat and prickly, and about the sand that looks hot, and about how a little rodent is using a leaf to keep cool in the hot desert sun. And suddenly she lets out a gasp and drops the phone and starts jumping up and down with glee. At first she’s speechless, pointing at a little butterfly resting on a pale pink flower, and when words return to her, she’s stumbling over them, trying to convince her skeptical mother that, yes, the butterfly actually flapped its wings.

On one hand it’s impossible — after all, dioramas are not real. But on the other, maybe it did, whether by a trick of the trade or a trick of the mind. Either way, does it really matter, if, even for just for a moment, we succumb to awe and marvel at the natural world, as if it were something incapable of being taken for granted?

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