Monday, April 4, 2011

Lost Art of the Museum Diorama

I've recently begun reading a relatively new book, by author Jay Kirk, titled "Kingdom Under Glass."

The book details the life and work of taxidermist and artist Carl Akeley who created some of the most memorable habitat dioramas in museums like the American Museum of Natural History and the Chicago Field Museum.

Reading about Akeley's life and work reminded me of my visits to the old Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and how much I enjoyed their dioramas.

The art of the classic diorama, featuring taxidermied animals, is somewhat of a lost artform.

Many museums (or science centers) are moving, or have already moved, away from static displays to more "interactive" exhibits, which often involve levers and buttons and lights and sounds. While these newer exhibits push agendas and encourage museum-goers (mostly children) to explore and to make learning "fun", they don't allow for the quiet study, curiosity, and introspection that the classic dioramas encouraged. Good dioramas often stimulated your imagination so that you could almost see the animals moving.

Some museums still utilize dioramas, but rarely with taxidermied animals. Often newer dioramas utilize animal sculptures, which are less realistic and convincing then their taxidermied predecessors.

The taxidermied specimen in a good diorama was only part of the overall art of the exhibit. Another major component was the background or habitat depicted in the diorama. These components skillfully and realistically reconstructed the habitat that a specimen was found in when it was alive. Some artists, like John Agnew and Sean Murtha, have successfully kept the art of the museum diorama background alive. In John's case his works have even appeared in the habitat exhibits of zoos.

If you want to check out some of Carl Akeley's dioramas, without having to travel to Chicago or New York, check out the book, "Windows on Nature" or check out the website of the American Museum of Natural History.

Mountain goat diorama at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo by Casey Tucker/Wild Auk Photography.