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Museums Struggle to Keep Dioramas on Display


Dioramas, the classic museum displays containing preserved wildlife, have long been a visitor favorite. But the seemingly ageless animals may finally be dying off as museum curators increasingly phase out the exhibits nationwide.

According to a Newsweek feature article, dioramas, which have graced exhibit halls for more than a century, are waning in popularity, leaving museums at odds of what to do.

Dioramas emerged in the late 1800s, and quickly attracted an audience that had little connection to nature outside the realistic displays. The dioramas peaked in popularity during the 1920s, but crowds began to diminish after World War II as Americans flocked to TV shows and movies for their nature fix.

Many museum directors now see them as outdated, a “dead zoo located in a dark tunnel,” as described by Willard Boyd, former president of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

The “diorama dilemma,” of trying to balance scientific value with public interest, has long left museum leadership scratching their heads on what to do with the displays. Some have attempted to partially dismantle and update the dioramas with high-tech and interactive displays.

This is what the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History did recently, a controversial decision that led their in-house taxidermist and conservator Frank Greenwell to retire in protest.

Other museums have abandoned the dioramas outright. When the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco closed in 2003 and reopened in 2008, it had disposed of one of its two diorama halls.

But there are encouraging signs that dioramas may not be as outdated as some curators believe. This past April, the Field Museum in Chicago pulled in $155,000 in a single month in order to construct its first diorama in over 25 years, signaling a renewed public interest.

Taxidermy as a practice is still flourishing, with thousands of professionals and hobbyists nationwide. And take a rainy day visit to a renowned diorama exhibit, such as in the American Museum of Natural History, and you’re bound to find yourself bumping elbows with hundreds of captivated onlookers.

That’s for the best, supporters say, as dioramas are still a powerful tool for teaching science, and the lessons they provide are as timeless as ever. While even nature documentaries can bend the truth, dioramas are set up to replicate specimens exactly as they appeared in the wild.

With Americans increasingly isolated from the outdoors and the planet facing climate change and environmental threats, that immersive look into nature that dioramas provide is all the more necessary.

Even with TV, movies, and the Internet just a click away, there may still be some life left in these dead animals.

NEXT: The Fight for Lynden Museum’s WWII Rifles to Stay on Display

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Museums Struggle to Keep Dioramas on Display