Bringing Nature To An Urban Audience

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Installing the Birds of Paradise group, 1945. COURTESY AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Our interest in the display of natural history makes this is a must-read:

The dioramas at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History—those vivid and lifelike re-creations of the natural world, in which the taxidermied specimens almost seem to breathe and the painted horizons seem to stretch for miles—are very much products of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century milieu in which many of them were created. Temporally and aesthetically sandwiched between the cabinet of curiosities and “Planet Earth,” the dioramas grew out of the intersection between a nascent conservation movement and an age of swashbuckling adventurism…

Of course, we prefer natural history in natural places, preferably intact and living and resplendent as hinted at in this video which we have featured previously. But museums have their place, and the mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is just the most recent of a long line of efforts to get the inanimate to animate our interest. But for those of us who grew up making dioramas, this feature brings to mind the power of three dimensions, even when inanimate, to animate.

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An eagle for the bird-group exhibit, 1961. COURTESY AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

…The word “diorama,” which comes from the Greek for “to see through,” was first coined by the French artist Louis Daguerre (now best known for inventing the daguerreotype), who in the eighteen-twenties started staging theatrical entertainments in which realistic scenes painted on translucent screens were illuminated from behind. The scenes eventually evolved to include 3-D objects, but it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that dioramas as we think of them now were used for science education. The first habitat diorama—a small scene showing muskrats in a river—was created by Carl Akeley, in 1889, for a museum in Milwaukee. Akeley later came to New York’s Natural History museum and was largely responsible for the installation of the Hall of African Mammals, which now bears his name. But, before his arrival, it was the museum’s first bird curator, Frank M. Chapman, who brought dioramas to the museum. He used his creations in environmental-conservation campaigns—the first federal bird reserve, for instance, came about after the installation of the museum’s Pelican Island diorama, which Chapman used to appeal to President Teddy Roosevelt to protect water birds. (Roosevelt’s fingerprints are on several of the museum’s installations. He even “collected” one of the elephants in the herd at the center of the African Hall.)

Read the whole story, and see the full set of photos, here.

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