After my presentation at the ASEH annual conference in Madison I was posed an interesting question: how can natural history museums continue to exhibit habitat dioramas as if they were unproblematic displays?
The questioner’s implicit assumption—and one that I agree with—was that natural history museums promote dioramas as emblematic fusions of art and science which transport visitors “closer to nature and to the essence of the animal.” (Metzler 11) And indeed this was my experience as a child transfixed by the mammal dioramas at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.
This same spirit animates the presentation of dioramas in Chicago’s Field Museum, which I visited after the Madison conference. A rustic archway shepherds visitors into the diorama hall with the promise that they are about to enter a “Nature Walk.” Historians of nature are well aware of critical reflections on museum practices. Donna Haraway’s “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” is perhaps the most notable, but natural history museums appeared to have buffered themselves against such analytical acids.
Museums, I think, would reject describing their dioramas in accompanying text panels and labels as Haraway might. But the time has certainly come to acknowledge dioramas for what they are: historical objects in their own right. Diorama labels, however, are largely silent on who created the scenes and in what conditions or contexts of production. That includes acknowledging not just the rich patrons, the sportsmen, who shot the animals but also the preparators who hand-cast each wax leaf on a tree in the diorama’s background. And also the animals: where and when were they shot? Or how otherwise killed? These can be simply acknowledged.
The Field Museum is an interesting case. Sally Metzler’s book Theatres of Nature: Dioramas at the Field Museum (Chicago 2007) gives the date for each diorama and names the collectors, taxidermists, and painters who made them. Although the text uncritically celebrates dioramas, these notes help contextualize dioramas as historical constructions.
This has me thinking about a possible digital history project that would undertake this job—an app that would reframe dioramas in a museum of museums and that would acknowledge these displays as historical objects that speak volubly about the pasts of natural history and museum keeping.
Since I haven’t mentioned fish in this post, I will here. One of the issues that I am examining in my thesis is the display of fish in natural history museums. Fish were much more difficult to assemble into habitat dioramas although museum preparators certainly tried. I will save this for a later post but I do want to explore the material and conceptual obstacles that cropped up as museums attempted to model fish in similarly affective ways as dioramas.
I’ve posted some photos taken during my visit to the Field. I was struck by the freestanding glass cases in the Field. These are an older style of display in contrast to the recessed and curved wall niches that characterize habitat dioramas after about 1924. The cases containing antelopes and other African animals are also interesting: they contain almost no accessories or are minimally dressed with no background paintings. They would not look out of place in a museum of modern art, standing in an group show along with the works of Damien Hirst or Mark Dion or even perhaps Duane Hanson.