Dilating on dioramas

On nostalgia, tunnel vision and what might be the end of an era.

This post will dive further into the world of the diorama, a reminiscence of past exhibition techniques, though they still remains strong represented at natural history museums all around the (Western) world.

From the Oxford Dictionary we can learn that a diorama is: “a model representing a scene with three-dimensional figures, either in miniature or as a large-scale museum exhibit”. (oxforddictionaries.com)

Gazelles quenches their thirst at Zoological Museum, Copenhagen

This might be the most ‘cleansed’ definition of the diorama that we can find. Though the words model and scene indicates that we are dealing with something ‘man-made’, an artificial plateau of some sort, and that the diorama, at least when depicted in large scale, has direct ties to the museum.

In the rather infant history of the museum the diorama holds a long tradition. Starting in the beginning of the 17th century the diorama was at first a theatrical — painted — landscape — scenography which large crowds would view overwhelmed with its realism. Later in the 17th century the diorama moved in at the museum and became a widespread way of depicting nature, animal life, and in broad scope the life of human beings.

This story will focus on the depictions of animal life through dioramas at natural history museums. I will make use of Donna Haraways text; ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–1936’, from 1984, where Haraway let us in on her experience of, and the history behind the Akeley African Hall and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the American Museum of Natural History.

Another ‘African Hall’ (apparently the preferred continent for game hunters and taxidermists from the early 20th century), that I recently visited, is the Tusher African Hall at California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. ‘Get your daily dose of wonder’ is says on the Academy’s website which underlines my placing of the institution in the edutainment category with a lot of dept to entertainment economy. The Academy both includes a planetarium, an aquarium, and a natural history museum. It presents its self as one big, theatrically, spectacle — in a different way than i experienced it at Moesgaard Museum — more like I experienced Disneyland in France. With agitated crowds waiting in line to test the rides.

In all this wonder and spectacle the Tusher African Hall almost felt like a peaceful oasis, with its subdued lighting, and its classicist architecture, which differentiates from the rest of the more high tech looking academy.

The theme of the hall is human evolution, which had its starting point in Africa. The hall present a number of classical dioramas; we have the zebra, the lion, and so on — but! with some rather different additions to it.

In the background of the zebra-diorama a video projection of an elephant flock moving across the painted scenography. Also, in the more spectacular end of the scale, they have put in a huge diorama at the end of the hall where real life ‘African’ penguins ‘frolicking’ around — a strange setup which also has its own live streaming of the penguins. There is a lot of issues that could be investigated in relation to this, but here, it made me aware of the stillness that is otherwise so significant for the diorama — which usually predicts a frozen snapshot of a “wildlife scenario”.

These reflections leads me back to Haraways analysis. In Haraways optic, the dioramas at the African Hall doesn’t tell the story of the Africa it tries to represent, but instead they are telling another story; namely, the story of American cultural history, one of gender, of biology, of sociology, and of economy:

“Behind every animal, sculpture, or photograph lies a profusion of objects and social interactions among people and other animals, which in the end can be recomposed to tell a biography embracing major themes for 20th Century United States. But the recomposition produces a story that is reticent, even mute, about Africa” (Haraway, 1985, p. 24)

The stillness of the diorama hides a lot of stories. Stories about how white male game hunters in the beginning of the 20th century had a bit of a imperialist wild west scenario going for them in Africa, where the prime hunt were the male, preferably the pack leader or just the biggest in size, like the Giant of Karisim as we see in the picture.

The Giant of Karisim, at the American Museum of Natural History.

Animals with deformations or scars, or female animals where chosen from, and the ‘perfect’ male then became the typical, the essential example. (Haraway, 1984, p. 36). This approach has had an huge impact on how our museums collections where shaped and how they look today.

The dioramas where then (and is still) an clear example of what Haraway termed the god trick, where the taxidermist, the biologist, and the museum claims to be able to show the real Africa, without situating their own bias and positions in this representation. The diorama is as much a creation and a narrative as anything else at the museum, but it flaw is that it doesn’t show that. Instead it hides its intentions and narratives, in Haraway’s example about the American cultural history, behind a fixed and static representation of reality — not as it is, but as the game hunters, taxidermist and the museum institution wanted it to be.

Narratives are strong forces, and to me one of the finest jobs of the museum is to treat them with utmost respect and chief care. Dioramas presented without any communication of provenance is a misrepresentation of reality and an outdated way of approaching science, cultural heritage and so fort both theoretically and practically.

But! because there is off course a but. I have in an earlier blog entry mentioned my sentimental emotions when it comes to dioramas. A sentimentality that I know that I share with a lot of people out there. Somehow dioramas seems to work, and those strong images that they are, seems to stick with us from childhood and on — a quality that not a lot of museums objects have and something that museum employees hunger for.

In the years that I have actively followed the development of museums I have, at least in Denmark, but I think this goes for most of the (at least Western) world, a tendency to what I for now, not very aptly, will call history shaming. A tendency that I think is strengthened by the fascination and excitement of the digital. Here we tend to be so taken with the new that we evolve a foolish and shameful feeling about past exhibition techniques, and thereby ways of perceiving and presenting history, which when new exhibitions are made and new museums build results in a plowing through the old, leaving no trace of the past.

In Denmark we are about to have a new natural history museum, which means the closing down of several museums including the Zoological Museum and I know that they have discussed what to do with their old dioramas.

I think there lies a great possibility here. An embodied perspective on the dioramas would in my view be to not diminish them from the surface of the earth, but instead bring some of them with us, and pair them with modern science, modern cultural theory, and modern communication. Use them as tools to tell the story of how our museums and collections were build; what were the consequences for the animal life the places where the animals in the dioramas were harvested, what is/where the consequences on how our collections were formed, what notions of gender, race, colonialism and so forth lies hidden in these frozen images.


Haraway, Donna. 1985: “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936” in Social Text, No. 11 (Winter, 1984-1985) (Duke University Press) p. 20-64

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