Analog Virtual Reality: Dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History

Creators
Corina Bardoff and Bill Levay

Transcript
Every year, millions of New Yorkers and tourists alike visit the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Stretching from 77th Street to 81st Street and from Central Park West to Columbus Avenue, the museum houses over 32 billion specimens in 27 buildings.

A sample of these specimens are on public display in compelling dioramas that present taxidermied animals in replicas of their natural environments.

Dr. Albert S. Bickmore, a naturalist, dreamed of creating a world-class natural history museum in New York City. At the urging of a group of powerful backers, state politicians passed a bill establishing the museum in 1869. The museum opened to the public in 1877.

In its first few decades, the museum’s displays were similar to the formal style of other museums of the time. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that ornithologist Frank Chapman developed the idea of the habitat diorama. He created a representation of Cobb’s Island, Virginia, featuring indigenous birds on a beach made of actual sand against a painted background of ocean and sky. The habitat idea has since become a standard for museum display cases.

The central figure in the creation of the museum’s iconic dioramas was Carl Akeley, a taxidermist, sculptor, explorer, hunter, photographer, and inventor. While chief taxidermist at the Chicago Museum of Natural History, he perfected his new, lifelike taxidermy technique, which used paper mache and modeling clay beneath the animal’s skin.

In 1936, the Akeley Memorial Hall of African Mammals opened to the public. It consisted of 28 habitat groups and cost close to a million dollars to install.

Painter James Perry Wilson, called “the Raphael of the animal diorama,” used Renaissance methods for painting on the curved backgrounds of the displays. The foregrounds feature real plants and insects collected in the field, alongside synthetic creations made of paper, plastic, cloth, and beeswax.

Between 1902 and 2007, the museum commissioned more that 250 dioramas.

In 2010, the museum began an extensive restoration of the dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals, which had opened in 1942.

Senior Project Manager of the recent restoration, Steve Quinn, says the habitats were the “state-of-the-art virtual reality of the day.” They still serve as a gateway through which we can experience parts of the natural world far removed from our everyday lives.

As Theodore Roosevelt, lifelong supporter of the museum, once said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”

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