It began, as some things do, with goats.
The goats were followed by gorillas and more goats (of a different variety) and moose and lions and sheep and a range of antelopes and on and on.
By the end of the 1930s, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University had one of the finest arrays of lifelike animal dioramas in the country. Between 30 and 40 of these displays, which present preserved animals in artfully recreated natural habitats, were up and running, so to speak, and the museum began packing in the visitors, more than quadrupling its attendance, from 40,000 in 1929 to 181,000 in 1935.
And there these meticulously constructed tableaux sat, decade after decade, charming and fascinating visitors through the end of vaudeville and the rise of Hollywood, through the era of frenetic Ernie Kovacs and warp-speed Star Trek, and on into the dawn of the high-energy overload of the digital era.
As life around them gained velocity, the dioramas remained sheathed in a cloak of stillness, unchanging presentations of a world that had ceased to exist.
The academy has now decided to renovate these historic displays, many of which are contained in tightly sealed glass-fronted chambers unopened for going on 80 to 90 years. Last Tuesday, the 8-by-12-foot glass fronts came down from dioramas of lowland gorillas and takin (a gnu goat from mountainous western China), and the sweet smell of old preservative filled the air.
These displays had not been breached since the 1930s.
Once the glass is safely stowed and the chemical preservatives are aired and analyzed, the lighting will be modernized and the display itself – the animals, plants, painted background, and the rest of the foreground, will be cleaned, repaired, and, in some cases, replaced.
Cost of each display renovation? About $200,000, barring any unforeseen and unfortunate event, officials said. The pair of completely spruced and spiffed dioramas will be back together and on display by the beginning of May. New digital interpretive elements will be ready by fall, said Jennifer Sontchi, the academy’s senior director of exhibits and public spaces.
“It’s long overdue,” Sontchi said. “Dioramas make up 60 percent of our visitor experience in terms of our floor space. It’s a big, big portion of what we offer here. … We are also at a point where you can tell so much in a digital way that now is a good time because we can tell what the dioramas told much more eloquently than we could before. Also it’s physically time – time for them to get a facelift.”
The animals in the displays – which consist of skins stretched over casts made from body molds – were all captured on expeditions generally funded by academy donors, who sometimes went along on the treks. The gorillas were taken on what is now the Central African Republic during a 1934 expedition led by George Vanderbilt.
The takin were captured by Brooke Dolan II on a 1931-32 expedition to western China and the Himalayas.
“Also on these expeditions we’d send out to collect the animals, we would send out an artist who would draw all the local plant material, take photographs, and document exactly what the area looked like,” said Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow of the academy. “It was very hard to find the painters who could do the backgrounds with that amazing three-dimensional quality.”
Sontchi noted that in preparing for the renovations, a few errors were found – plants in the foreground of scenes on the wrong continent. This made tangible a debate within the project.
“It is true we did make mistakes; of course we did,” she said. “We found a butterfly that’s wrong and we’re going to replace it. And that’s something we had to make a decision on early as a team. Is it important to restore the dioramas to what they were? Or do we want to renovate the dioramas to be the best they can be? Art historians and conservators talk about this kind of thing all the time.
“We decided we need them to be the best they could be – to be as accurate and gorgeous and as lifelike as possible. That was more important than adhering to the original version.”
Though some natural history museums have embraced renovation of their dioramas, notably the American Museum of Natural History in New York, others have turned away from the genre. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington, for instance, closed two diorama halls half a decade ago and reopened them with video screens, interactive elements, and free-standing animals.
Peck, who became so captivated by the academy’s monumental moose diorama as a grade school student on a class trip that he failed to notice his classmates and teachers were leaving the museum, firmly believes in renovation. In his view, a diorama amounts to a unique form of art that offers visitors an experience that can be enhanced but not supplanted.
“What these dioramas do, which movies and television can never do, is offer the ability to see the real thing – get up close to it, see it, take your time to let it soak in, all of it,” Peck said. “All of these dioramas have been carefully thought out with that in mind. Films are stimulating and interesting and certainly full of content, but they go by you so fast, you can’t really absorb the detail. That’s why these dioramas will continue to be popular forever.”