Back at the museum, sculptors re-created each animal's body—down to musculature and tendons—in clay around a posed skeleton. "The anatomy on these specimens is absolutely incredible," notes George Dante, founder of the company Wildlife Preservations who led the taxidermy restoration efforts for the project. The original taxidermists tanned skins on models shaped to the sculpted bodies, then returned the preserved skins to each animal, ensuring a precise fit.
In the pre-plastic era of the 1930s museum artists used wax, paper, lacquer, wood, plaster, burlap and fabric to create convincing leaves, stems, rocks and other elements. With every detail composed to re-create the specific site, "you are transported to this spot," Dante notes. "Each one is a specific time and place. They serve an important purpose in that respect. So you can actually find this exact location and see how it's changed over time—how the vegetation has changed, how the landscape has changed."
Some of the best-known background painters, including James Perry Wilson and George and Belmore Browne, carefully captured the scene using an exacting grid system to make these curved-wall backgrounds appear infinite.
The trouble with time
The first 10, masterful dioramas—including the American bison and pronghorn antelope, the Alaska brown bear, the moose and the wapiti—were sealed behind glass for the 1942 opening of the exhibit. An additional 19 were added in 1954 and small mammal dioramas were completed in 1963. And rarely had any of the dioramas been touched since; one was opened to replace a fallen branch and another to restore faded snow.
They had not even been opened to rectify small inaccuracies. Most dioramas were meant to represent the snapshot in time when the animals were collected. But in the American bison and pronghorn antelope diorama, the scene was intended to depict the herd structures present in the mid-19th century, when bison still roamed free in great numbers. One visiting botanist, however, had noticed that the grasses in the foreground were invasive, nonnative species that had arrived by the 1930s but would not have been growing on the Great Plains in the 1850s.
In addition to new scientific understanding, the material integrity of the animals themselves began to shift, adversely affecting their accuracy. Over the years, the dioramas acquired a well-worn dusty look, as they faded far from their original coloration. The unfiltered fixtures that illuminated these displays had rarely been upgraded in the past 70 years, which meant the dioramas were being bombarded with UV-wavelengths that sapped the colors out of the animals' natural coats and some of the scene elements, such as snow—and as Elkin points out, "nobody likes yellow snow."
The new for the old
With the restoration project, museum experts at last had an opportunity to return the scenes to good scientific standing. Their main priority was restoring faded animal furs to their original colors. One of the major challenges was "gaining access to the taxidermy without damaging the dioramas," Elkin says. "While we were trying to remedy one thing, we didn't want to damage another." Some of the smaller animals could be carefully removed but many, such as the 500-pound bison, were too large to risk transporting. For these animals the museum built temporary wooden scaffolding into the dioramas to save fragile grasses and plants from being trampled, allowing conservators and taxidermists more freedom to work inside. (This intimacy was not always easygoing, however; "the wolves were a little scary when the glass comes down," says Elizabeth Nunan, who worked with Elkin on the conservation aspects.)