Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Note: 5 out of 7 of the pictures in this post were taken by me, with my daughter's cheap instant camera. The quality of the photos isn't very good, but it doesn't seem to matter, which says much about the quality of their subject matter...

This spring break I took two days to go to New York City with my elder daughter, aged ten. This is not a simple thing when you live in California. I sent her on ahead alone to stay with her uncle for a few days, then met her there. And one of the things she wanted to do was go to the American Museum of Natural History..

I've heard about this place (and even walked past it) for many years, and I always thought it was another one of those "New York things you're supposed to see," like Times Square (which really isn't much more than a touristy place with a lot of neon, like Piccadilly Circus or the Umeda district in Osaka - or, of course, Yasukuni-dori in Shinjuku, and the Akihabara area, both in Tokyo). But when we got inside, I understood why this museum is famous.

We came in via the subway station, so at first it simply seemed to be floor after floor of echoing halls, with little sense of how to get from here to there. Then I saw a gaping doorway which said above it "African Mammals," and I dragged my daughter inside, though she wanted to find the North American Mammals. As we walked into the darkness we were greeted by a huge herd of stampeding elephants, coming right at us, their size more stunning than I had thought possible; and then we began to walk around.

Much to my surprise, the dioramas were breathtaking, complete works of art which stunned both of us.

The taxidermy was beautiful and incredibly lifelike, thanks to the efforts of Carl Akeley, who developed a technique for insanely detailed and perfectly shaped taxidermy techniques. Mr. Akeley, who grew up on a farm and only had three years of school as a child, learned taxidermy and created the world's first complete museum habitat diorama in 1890. His Wikipedia page is absolutely fascinating - he changed not only how museums display things but affected publice thinking on the collection of specimens and farming and other encroachment on natural habitats.

Akeley's method was to insist his artists visit the field and take careful measurements of each individual specimen, along with plaster casts of each animal's body. They then brought casts, measurements, skeletons, and skins of the animals back to the museum. They then set up the skeletons and built perfect replicas of the musculature of the individual animals out of clay on the animal's own skeleton. Every muscle that should be flexed for the pose, was flexed, and every muscle that should be relaxed was relaxed. They then took multipart plaster casts of this, pulled out the clay and the skeletal remains, and used the mold to make a hollow papier mache form, on which the skins were then laid. It was the first time anyone had tried to replicate individuals rather than going with a generalized model of a typical specimen.

William R. Leigh, master painter in charge of the backgrounds in the African Hall, was hired by Akeley himself, and accompanied Akeley to Africa to do field sketches. He and eighteen other painters painted all the backgrounds in the dioramas in the African Hall, the North American Hall, and most of the other dioramas. They started in the 1920's and worked on through WPA times, crafting dazzling scenes with startling detail and accuracy; many of the North American scenes were taken from national parks, which were, at that point, in their heyday.

The interesting thing about Akeley and most of the other people who participated in the creation of the dioramas is that they saw, as they traveled, the habitats of the animals and the incredible variety and beauty of the places they were trying to represent; and all of them were touched by it. It became the goal of the museum to show the public this beauty, and to represent to them the delicacy and individuality of the habitats, so that the general public would understand the need to preserve these places. They predated nature photography and film, and were, as Stephen Quinn, the Senior Project Manager in the Department of Exhibitions, says, "an early form of virtual reality. Curators, who were concerned about vanishing wilderness and wildlife, were looking for a medium to nurture environmental awareness and raise concerns about wildlife species. The intent was to recreate nature within the artifice of the museum, to recreate that close incounter with wildlife that would move a person to care."

I can hardly see how a person could help but be moved: the care and detail evident in these loving recreations are so evident that we find ourselves caring, just because the creators cared so much themselves. I can't recommend it enough; next time you are in New York for whatever reason, take a couple of hours and check them out. Personally, I want to go back and spend a whole day there.


The AMNH website's very cool section on the dioramas, how they were made, and who made them, complete with interesting little videos of Stephen Quinn speaking about the exhibits (He is also the author of Windows on Nature, a book on the history and influence of the dioramas).

How the American Museum of Natural History's model of a giant flea was made - Scientific American, 1914


Denon Wunderk said...

Curious! And the photos are fantastic!

soozeq1 said...

this topic is so interesting, it is how I came to see your blog post on it, since I have been reading all the books about the Akeleys who both were amazing. You must read the book just out by Jay Kirk, "Kingdom Under Glass" which tells the thrilling tale of every one of the dioramas you saw there. Loved Quinn's book, too.