Like most people who grew up in New York, I've been fascinated by the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History since I was a kid running around the museum every rainy afternoon. Unlike most people, I recently got a backstage tour of the process of creating these incredible works of art with the former project director, Steve Quinn, who recently retired after some thirty years at the museum. In his book, "Windows On Nature", Quinn explains that the landscapes we see painted behind the animals in the foreground are not random scenes of an environment where you will find these animals. They are in fact specific places where the museum sent the artists, along with scientists collecting plant specimens and hunters collecting the animals for the taxidermy. In fact, the museum STILL creates dioramas of a whole variety of places, and always sends the artists there to do field sketches. Now, before everyone gets upset about the taxidermy, I have to point out that the museum is dedicated to conservation as part of its mission, and OF COURSE there are no animals "collected" nowadays. But times were different at the turn of the century when many of these animals were collected. Back in the golden age of dioramas, during the first half of the Twentieth Century, the artists themselves were hunters and naturalists as well as explorers and geographers. Carl Akeley was perhaps the most famously adventurous of them all. He was nearly killed several times, once by an elephant and once by a leopard. He was also a sculptor and a visionary, and he came up with the technique that makes the creatures in the dioramas so lifelike--but you have to read the book to find out about that. Trust me, it is amazing. You don't have to know anything about the dioramas to know that they are magical, but when I read Quinn's book and had the experience of walking around the museum with him, I realized that these dioramas are a place where science, art and theatre meet. The museum and the artists are scrupulous about reproducing the setting and the landscape. Teams of foreground and background artists reproduce the flora and fauna with scientific precision because these dioramas are meant to show us something in nature that most of us will never see in our lifetimes. The place where the background painting and the three dimensional foreground meet is called the "tie in" and how these artists work together to make a seamless whole is where the illusion of theatre begins. A shadow from the actual lighting inside the box of the diorama is painted out on the floor so that the scene will remain true to where the shadows would be at dawn on the Libyan desert. As Quinn says, the dioramas capture a moment in time. An exact time of day but also a time that is lost in history. The backgrounds that were painted are often no longer there. A wetland has become a city, the smoke from village campfires in the distance, exactly reproduced by an artist in the 1930's, is now replaced by refugee camps when you stand looking from the same spot that was first chosen as the vantage point for a diorama--as Quinn and other museum artists have done. I came away from my day with Quinn even more impressed than when I arrived, armed only with his beautiful book. A time when artists were also field naturalists, explorers and geographers seems very long ago. And though it was certainly a boy's club, there were some fearless women there too. Rebels like Gertrude Sanford Legendre who led an expedition for the museum to Ethiopia in 1928 (because she paid for it!) and came home with the Nyalas displayed in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and a fiancé, Sydney Legendre, one of her companions on the expedition. Carl Akeley's first and second wives were hunters, explorers and geographers in their own right. Every diorama has its own secret history, and here is a link to the book which you can order or buy at the museum bookshop after you wander the great halls. We all love the Squid and the Whale, but who knows where the Whitney Hall of Pacific Bird Life is now hidden?
I am still poring over it, and in the meantime I am listening to the audio book of "The Voyage of the Beagle" and looking a little closer at the world these days . . .
Not Steve Quinn and me, just a random shot of another artist at the museum.