Natural History Museum Dioramas Are Disappearing

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Life-sized dioramas were once a staple of many natural history museums. Taxidermy-treated deer, wolves, and lions roamed carefully constructed habitats designed to replicate actual places in the wild where artists and scientists had done field work. But soon, this low-tech method of making museum visitors feel like they’re really face-to-face with a lion may be disappearing, replaced with more flashy interactive exhibits.

Newsweek traces the history of these works of taxidermy-filled art:

Dioramas arose in the late 1800s, largely out of a desire to return to nature following the Industrial Revolution. 'These are what you might call the earliest version of virtual reality,' says Stephen Quinn, who recently retired as senior project manager and longtime diorama artist at the [American Museum of Natural History]. The displays consist of taxidermied animals, foreground props and artfully painted panoramic backgrounds. More than just works of art, dioramas are true to science; for decades, artists and scientists went into the field to collect specimens and their surroundings and replicate them exactly as they appeared. 'This sense of place and this sense of reality and a personal encounter is so strong that they are a real powerful medium for teaching science,' Quinn says.

But diorama art in museums has been on a slow decline since the 1920s, and today, museums (and museum goers) are more interested in interactive displays and multimedia than 100-year-old, meticulously recreated nature scenes. In recent years, several major museums have opted not to recreate their dioramas when they moved to new facilities, including the California Academy of Sciences (which relocated between 2003 and 2008) and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Yet there may still be hope for lovers of those classic museum scenes. Taxidermy is making a comeback, and the Field Museum in Chicago recently received more than $155,000 in crowdfunded pledges to build their first new diorama in a quarter century. However, true to the times, the museum didn't reach its $170,000 goal. They're building the hyena exhibit anyway, thankfully.  

Read more about the great diorama dilemma in Newsweek.