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Before there was IMAX, before there was the Discovery Channel and even before there were color movies, there were dioramas. These lifelike, still-life scenes, when rendered accurately, can still overwhelm the viewer—and teach about habitat, anatomy and behavior.
The 43 dioramas in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City are considered to be among the best in the world. They feature grand American bison grazing with pronghorn antelope on the Great Plains, majestic moose fighting at close range and wolves that seem ready to pounce out of their moonlit enclosure.
Dioramas might seem old-fashioned, but they allow visitors "to walk right up to the glass to check out individual features in a way you would never be able to do in a TV documentary," says Ross MacPhee, a mammalogy curator at the museum. "You can walk around them, see them from different angles—and that gives these presentations of natural history continued life."
Because of their careful construction in the 1930s and '40s with real plants and animals and ture-to-life settings, these scenes have remained captivating and convincing. But the decades of continuous display had led to faded fur, dusty leaves and yellowed snow. These slow shifts had made the exhibit both less engaging and accurate—a major failing in the eyes of animal experts like MacPhee. Many of the animals, such as the American bison, "went from all of these rich, beautiful browns and blacks to blond—nothing against blond; they just didn't look real," MacPhee notes.
In 2011 the AMNH began the massive task of assessing and restoring the historic dioramas—without permanently altering them in a way that would hinder future restorations. The project involved staff from many of the museum's departments, including curators, conservationists, exhibition preparators. But they also outsourced the some of the expertise. "We really needed a taxidermist to accomplish the recoloring," says Lisa Elkin, who directs conservation at the museum. But common taxidermy techniques had to be reinvented, and novel, reversible dyes created. Additionally, they had to devise new lighting sources and repurpose new materials so fragile scenes, such as snow-covered mountainsides, could retain their luster for decades to come.
Restoring the original coloring of these animals and their surroundings does not just provide a vivider visitor experience, it also preserves a moment in evolutionary time from the early 20th century. This enables researchers to track changes in coloring and habitat due to, for example, rapidly advancing climate change.
In October the Hall of North American Mammals reopened to the public after the yearlong renovation. Scientific American got a sneak preview of the exhibit beforehand. Here is how science helped the museum make this work possible.
The real deal
In the 1930s the AMNH began work on perhaps the most ambitious real-life wildlife dioramas to date—and what would be some of the best ever accomplished.
The museum sent artists, curators and collectors out into the field across the continent—from the Grand Canyon to Mount Rainier to the Grand Tetons. For each scene teams chose an actual, existing place to re-create with plants, animals and scenery at the museum. Artists painted sketches, capturing the exact hills, streams, trees and rocks in specific spots. Collectors gathered plant samples to use and to re-create the snapshot back in New York; others killed the now-iconic animals that would be the centerpieces of these scenes.