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NYTimes.com Article: Rescuing the Diorama From the Fate of the Dodo
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Rescuing the Diorama From the Fate of the Dodo
February 3, 2003
By GLENN COLLINS
In the age of the remote wildlife Webcam, the downloadable
travelogue and the holographic imager, why would any
technologically advanced natural history museum spend
millions to restore dioramas?
A new generation of museum professionals is rejecting the
notion that the diorama is a quaint 19th-century
anachronism, marveling at their scientific accuracy and the
subtle artistry of their painted backdrops and expressive
Scientists have realized that many venerable dioramas offer
visions of pristine habitats that now suffer from
overdevelopment and environmental pollution. And a growing
number of those mounted creatures sealed behind the glass
have now become extinct.
Dioramas "are valuable windows on lost ecosystems,
authentic snapshots that show, in dramatic terms, the
quality of our loss," said Ellen V. Futter, president of
the American Museum of Natural History.
That is why the museum is now refurbishing 14 dioramas in a
$25 million overhaul of the 70-year-old Hall of Ocean Life,
perhaps best known for its 94-foot blue whale.
The hall has been closed for a year while some 600
specimens and models have been spruced up, and 150 new ones
constructed to inhabit eight major new glassed-in ecosystem
David Harvey, the museum's vice president for exhibition,
said that dioramas are now viewed "as libraries of our
species," which is not to say that they are required to be
fusty. In the ocean hall, models of hundreds of new sea
critters, including "bionic fish," are being individually
hand-painted for the exhibits. These are being fitted with
L.E.D. circuits, to make them luminesce, for installation
in the Stygian deep-sea exhibition, joined by other bionic
creatures, including a light-up red jellyfish that looks
remarkably like a pulsating lava lamp.
The venerable natural history diorama originated in the
19th century, according to Karen Wonders, an art historian
at Uppsala University in Sweden, who is the author of
"Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of
Natural History," published in 1993.
The term diorama - derived from the Greek "dia" (through)
and "horama" (what is seen) - was patented in 1822 by the
Frenchman Louis Daguerre of Daguerreotype fame, but his was
a theatrical version that had a mechanically revolving
platform. Later, the word was applied to museum displays,
describing realistic three-dimensional representations of
life in natural settings.
Although initially museums used the "cabinet of
curiosities" approach in presenting disparate specimens,
the American Museum of Natural History's first bird
groupings, surrounded by lifelike leaves and flowers made
from wax, were displayed in the mid-1880's.
Frank M. Chapman, curator of the museum's department of
ornithology, is generally credited with pioneering the
modern scientific approach to the diorama in North America.
For example, in the late 19th century, Chapman
systematically collected 18 species with their nests and
all four feet of their surrounding natural habitats for the
museum's Hall of North American Birds.
Taxidermists and background artists accompanied the
curators and exhibition specialists in the wild, so they
could vividly capture the scenes. "These dioramas," Ms.
Futter said, "were the earliest forays into virtual
reality." Some species, like those in the passenger pigeon
display in the museum's Birds of New York State exhibition,
are now extinct.
In the ocean hall, the Bahamian Coral Reef Group diorama
required multiple field expeditions to the island of Andros
from 1924 to 1933. To create the diorama - which presents a
two-story, above-and-below-water view - museum curators
brought back 40 tons of coral.
Artists donned diving hats and visited the reef underwater
while breathing pumped air. Fish were collected at the
reef, molds of them were made, and duplicates were cast
from beeswax, the cutting-edge modeling substance of that
Now that it is restored, the original backdrop's subtlety
is revealed: it can be viewed from either the right or the
left side of the hall's second-story gallery with two
separate points of perspective creating the illusion of
distance from both sides.
Stephen C. Quinn, a senior project manager at the museum,
who has helped create and refurbish the museum's dioramas
since 1974, said that the coral reef exhibition "could
never be duplicated now."
For starters, the original reef has been ecologically
degraded. Second, the 19-foot-by-12-foot single glass panel
enclosing the coral-reef display - framed in a great arch
rising 35 feet above the main floor - is too large to be
replaced, because "the building was built around it," Mr.
The Hall of North American Mammals, dating from 1942, has
been cited as a summit of diorama artistry, Mr. Quinn said.
One of the backdrop painters, J. Perry Wilson, worked out a
mathematical grid system to transfer landscape perspectives
onto curved backdrop walls. The blue of his diorama skies
used as many as 10 different gradations of color.
These days, background painters are using similar
techniques to create their grand illusions. Sean Murtha, a
museum artist whose medium is the 60-foot-wide diorama
canvas, has painted nine new backdrops in the ocean hall,
and has restored two older ones. "The hardest trick is to
blend the backdrop with objects placed in the diorama," he
said the other day as he put the finishing touches on
highly realistic depictions of rocks and sea gulls, or
Even the tie-in elements are yielding to innovation,
including technologically advanced cast-fiberglass water
surfaces, used in underwater dioramas. These depict a
juncture with the sky. "The old water surfaces were too
thick and had a strange amber color," Mr. Quinn said. "The
new ones are thin, and clear."
When the two-story ocean hall first opened in 1933, its
cases of specimens were bathed in natural light from an
overarching turn-of-the-century glass skylight. Later, the
panes were closed off, covered over and smothered in
black-painted, sound-absorbing tile. Now, architectural
detail has been restored and the skylight is visible again.
Construction of the hall is expected to be completed in
April, for an opening to the public in mid-May with a new
name, the Paul and Irma Milstein Hall of Ocean Life,
acknowledging its principal donors.
The ocean hall's signature specimen, the blue whale, has
already undergone some crucial upgrading to reflect new
knowledge since the current model - carved from polystyrene
and then sheathed in fiberglass - was crafted in the
"It needed a face-lift," said Dr. Melanie L. J. Stiassny,
one of the museum's 12 ichthyologists and the lead curator
of the hall's exhibitions. The whale's formerly goggly eyes
have now been streamlined into the body, as they are in the
open ocean, she said. The whale's blowhole has been
replaced by one that is more anatomically correct, and the
curators have added a 6-inch bellybutton. (Whales are
Furthermore, Dr. Stiassny said, the whale's exterior
coloration has yielded to 25 gallons of paint, so that its
dominant hue is now bluish gray, replacing the former,
inaccurate, brownish tinge.
Nearby, Tom Doncourt, a museum preparator, was making a
reproduction of rib bones from a gray whale for a new
exhibition, using truly low-tech materials: plaster and,
yes, papier-mâché. Still a staple of museum design, despite
the popularity of exotic plastics, "papier-mâché is easy to
use and it isn't toxic," he explained. Its glacial drying
time gives technicians ample opportunity to work it into
the proper shape by eye.
But beneath their artistry, dioramas bear a sober message.
"Despite their beauty and their innocence, and despite the
lost lushness of the locations," Ms. Futter said, "they are
warnings of what faces us if we don't better protect the
world around us in the future."
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