Dioramas – Bring Them to Life!

“What are your feelings about dioramas?”

This was a question posed to me on a behind-the-scenes tour at The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University before I visited the public space where I found a lot of dioramas.  This set me to contemplating them as I might not have without that question.  Add the exhibition Secrets of the Diorama and my imagination started to work.

When digital is everything, dioramas might seem like just so much dead stuff.  They never change and if they do it is usually decay that causes the change and makes them less lifelike than they originally were.  Once you have seen a diorama, do you really need to see it again?  What good is all this dead stuff anyway?  Well, I have a few ideas….

Unfortunately, dioramas don't last forever. Flaking paint can ruin the illusion that you are standing three feet from a bear.

Unfortunately, dioramas don’t last forever. Flaking paint can ruin the illusion that you are standing three feet from a bear.

The dioramas that I viewed during my visit to The Academy were much like those you find in any older natural history museum.  They are realistic representations of ecosystems created with taxidermy, models, paintings and the occasional soundscape.  They are labeled simply, usually with a description of the largest or most charismatic creature and the ecosystem it inhabits.  There might be a challenge to find other small creatures or a description of an important plant.  All in, the label generally leaves a lot unanswered and as every museum studies student knows, they are probably not read anyway.

But it doesn’t have to be this way!  Technology could help bring dioramas to life.  I’m not thinking of holograms and fancy lighting or turning the taxidermy into “walking with lions and tigers and bears”, but  rather using the technology that nearly every visitor is carrying in their pocket to make visiting dioramas an adventure in learning and fun.  And I was inspired by the Dallas Museum of Art.

The DMA has a list of self-guided “bite-sized” tours that help make art more accessible to those who don’t “know” art and who don’t want to spend all day just browsing the galleries.  These tours are available as PDF’s on the museum’s website and can be downloaded and printed or simply downloaded to a smartphone.  One example is the Park Rangers Tour.  I love how this tour would appeal to a nature lover by taking them to four great artworks depicting nature while simultaneously introducing them to some art that they otherwise probably wouldn’t have bothered to examine.  The tour provides information that supplements the labels you find next to the artworks.  There are suggested activities that relate to the art while you are in the museum and even after you leave.  The museum sneaks in the chance to capture the visitor on social media with a suggestion to take a photo and add a museum hashtag as well as a break from the tour that encourages the visitor to search a gallery with a hint of competition.  What a fun way to spend an hour in an art museum!

Why couldn’t a natural history museum apply this to its dioramas?  Imagine the possibilities…

Over the Rainbow – From a scarlet ibis to a purple larkspur use the colors available in your dioramas to highlight one specimen of each color in the rainbow.  Explain how the color is achieved and what its advantage is to the plant or animal that bears it

Frogger – frogs in the dioramas with detailed species descriptions and frog calls you can listen to on your phone

Locomotion – examples in the dioramas of one animal each that walks, crawls, hops, flies, and swims with activities that get kids to move in those ways

Flight – a visit to various flying creatures in the dioramas with discussion of how they evolved flight, comparisons of their methods of achieving flight and the chance to build a paper airplane

Roots – plants with various root structures with discussion of the advantages of each for their environment and instructions for growing beans at home so that visitors can watch the roots develop

I’m sure that you can think of many more.  There really isn’t any limit to the diversity of bite-sized tours that could be created through the dioramas of a natural history museum.  Add activities that require selfies or tweets with hashtags or create a Snapchat Geofilter or Instagram challenge so that visitors use that phone in their pocket to tell their friends what a great time they are having in the museum.  Offer badges for completing a tour to entice collectors or let visitors accumulate points they can use for discounts in the museum shop.  Add in at least one activity or tour stop outside the dioramas to offer a break and to get visitors moving through the galleries.  The Academy could add an activity in their Outside In  exhibit space where kids (and adults) can get hands on with items that they can only look at in a diorama and a trip to the Secrets of the Diorama exhibit for a chance to sit.  All that is needed is some imagination.  Make the tours fun and sneak in the education.  If a visitor enjoys one tour, it might be an incentive to visit again and again to try others.  Take suggestions for tours or ask visitors to create their own and share them.

These adorable opossums just need a story to bring them to life!

These adorable opossums just need a story to bring them to life!

So, what are my feelings about dioramas?  I love them!  I always have, but I know that for many they seem lifeless and dull.  Can we bring them to life?  Tell their stories?  Give them new meaning?  Make them fun?  I think we can.  How would you do it?

Many thanks to Mr. Paul Callomon, Collection Manager – Malacology, Invertebrate Paleontology and General Invertebrates at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University for a fabulous behind the scenes tour and for asking the question that inspired this post.


The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest by Jack Nisbet

I am fascinated by natural history collections, so the title of this book caught my eye.  I never would have believed that the story of the namesake of the Douglas fir could be so interesting!  David Douglas was much more than a botanist and his adventures made me long for a time when the country was open for exploration.  Douglas was described as a man of “great activity, undaunted courage, singular abstemiousness and energetic zeal” (Nisbet, 2009) and he definitely lives up to that description in this biography.  He visited the Galapagos a decade before Darwin, explored the Pacific Northwest, and investigated the volcanoes of Hawaii.

Douglas’ story is compelling and the practices of a collector at the time are interesting.  Douglas was usually welcomed and assisted by those he came in contact with, but even in the 1820’s some New York residents were angered at his collecting and accused him of removing the only populations of some rare plants.  One of Douglas’ objectives as he collected was to find new ornamental plants for the gardens of Europe.  This book would be a great place to begin a discussion about the ethics of collecting and how people facilitate the movement of species.

The world of plants is very diverse.  I had to look up some botanical and scientific terms, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they easily could have been defined in the text.  I was also disappointed in the lack of maps showing Douglas’ travels.  Anyone who has traveled in the area can probably picture the places described and imagine the distances, but my experiences in the Pacific Northwest are limited and I wanted to know where Douglas was on a map as his travels progressed.  Drawings of specimens would also enhance the text of this book.

Anyone with an interest in botany, the Pacific Northwest or exploration will find The Collector worthwhile.  Take the time as you read to look up unfamiliar terms and photos of the plants and animals described in the text.  Make the book an adventure. Travel in the footsteps of an explorer in an unsettled country where anything is possible and discovery happens every day.

Further exploration of David Douglas’ life:

The David Douglas Society

Finding David Douglas

My foray into fossils

I volunteer in the collection at the Fair Park Campus of The Perot Museum of Nature and Science where I work primarily with specimens stored in alcohol, otherwise known as fluid storage.  This week another volunteer was labeling and boxing fossil specimens.  From a distance these specimens look pretty boring, just a bunch of odd-shaped, grey rocks.  But when I sat down to eat my lunch at the table where she was working and saw the fossils up close, my interest was piqued.

Distal portion of a tibia, cross section

Distal portion of a tibia, cross section

Distal portion of a tibia, lateral view

Distal portion of a tibia, lateral view

I noticed this ‘distal portion of a tibia’ (the farthest end from the knee of the larger and stronger of the two bones in the leg below the knee), which has a somewhat lovely core of whitish crystal.  Why is this so?  It looks to me as if the marrow was replaced with something different from the rest of the fossil, but I freely admit that I know very little about fossils, so I went to the museum’s expert, vertebrate paleontologist and fossil preparator Dr. Ron Tykoski.  The first surprise he revealed to me is that not all fossils are rock!  According to Dr. Ron, anything that is physical evidence of life greater than 10,000 years old is considered a fossil.  [Some definitions use ‘from a period of time prior to recorded human history’ (Shepherd)].  So those mummified mammoths that occasionally pop up are considered fossils right along with the rock-solid trilobites that you can find in a museum store.  In any case, the reason we discussed this fact is that this particular fossil is in an incomplete state of permineralization, a type of fossilization in which water from the ground, lakes, or oceans seeps into the pores of organic tissue and forms a crystal cast with deposited minerals (Babcock).  Because water will take the path of least resistance and go where the most space is, the mineral deposits will generally start where there is more space in the bone.  And wouldn’t you know, according to Wisegeek.com:

Spongy bone is lighter, softer, and weaker than compact or cortical bone, the other type of calcium tissue, but it has a greater surface area and is much more vascular, or supplied with blood vessels. Spongy bone is found on the inside of some bones, and it is surrounded by the stronger, more protective compact bone. (Foster, 2012)

So, the center of the bone, being spongy and with more surface area (more spaces in it) would likely be the first to permineralize and this specimen demonstrates it perfectly!  Dr. Ron was able to find three or four other examples of this in the various trays around the fossil prep lab, so it seems to be a common occurrence.  But here is what I found to be really cool.  The parts of this fossil that have not undergone permineralization are in effect just old bones!  I am talking really old bones from the Cretaceous, which spans the time from about 145 to 66 million years ago (the specimen in the photo is in the range of 70 to 69 million years in age).  You can feel the difference between one of these specimens and a completely permineralized fossil by their weight; the first is lighter because it still has all of the open spaces found in living bone while the second has been filled with minerals and is much heavier.

What does all this mean?  It means that not all fossils are solid rock and that sometimes what you think is just an old bone, might actually be a fossil.  Fascinating!

Works Cited

Babcock, L. E. (n.d.). Permineralization. Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Access Science by McGraw Hill: http://www.accessscience.com/abstract.aspx?id=803250&referURL=http%3a%2f%2fwww.accessscience.com%2fcontent.aspx%3fsearchStr%3dpermineralization%26id%3d803250

Foster, N. (2012, Sep 20). What is spongy bone? Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Wisegeek: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-spongy-bone.htm

Shepherd, R. (n.d.). What is a fossil? Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Discovering Fossils: Introducing the Paleontology of Great Britain: http://www.discoveringfossils.co.uk/whatisafossil.htm

When a good thing goes missing


Just over a year ago, the Field Museum opened the Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth.  Not long after it opened, I visited the museum and toured this new permanent exhibition.  While the hall is filled with the latest tech bells and whistles, it is the use of the collection objects and a wonderful behind-the-scenes video that made the whole place lovely to me.  Demonstrations of how a collection can provide clues to changing ecosystems or lead to the discovery of new species are just the thing I look for in an exhibition in a natural history museum.  Specimens are displayed as they appear in storage and visitors learn how they came to be in the museum and why they are important.  If you want to know more about this exhibition, you can visit a description of it on the museum’s website at http://fieldmuseum.org/about/abbott-hall-conservation-restoring-earth.  You can also view the behind-the-scenes video at http://vimeo.com/35709557 and visit the museum’s online version of the exhibition at http://restoringearth.fieldmuseum.org/index.html. One of the ways the museum highlights the collection within this exhibition is by allowing visitors to create their own mini collection of digital objects inspired by the artifacts, specimens, and photos in Restoring Earth.  I did this on my first visit and the best part about the mini collection creator is that my collection is still there, on the museum website!  Just go to the Mini Collection Gallery at http://restoringearth.fieldmuseum.org/index.html and search for Teresa Mayfield or pick any of the thousands of collections that other visitors have created.  The best part is, when you select an object from a collection, you get a detailed description of the object and links to related museum pages to explore it further.  I would love to see this concept expand to other natural history museums and to see the Field expand it outside this single exhibition and to actual digital assets rather than ‘representations’ (icons).  Wouldn’t it be great if I could create a mini collection from all of the objects on display anywhere in the museum or even better from digital copies all of the objects in the collection?  OK, that is probably a bit ambitious, but a girl can dream.

But this post was inspired by a more recent visit to Restoring Earth.

I revisited Restoring Earth over the Thanksgiving break with my family and I was excited to show them the great use of the collection and the video, which includes cameos of people they actually know.  I also wanted them to make their own mini collections, but that was not to be.  The fairly large space dedicated to this activity was an empty room with a single spotlight in the middle and a blank white wall.  No explanation of what was supposed to be there or why it was gone; just an odd, empty space that was visited by untold numbers of holiday visitors.  What a shame!  A few searches by date on the mini collection website show that at some point on November 14, 2012 (barely one year after the exhibition opened) the exhibit stopped functioning.  The set-up for this activity in the Field is probably more high-tech than necessary, allowing visitors to select collection items using their body as in an Xbox 360 game.  A mobile application or website with touchpads in the gallery would accomplish the same goal.  Do we really need video games to make our collections interesting?  When the video games break down, do we plan a back-up so that we don’t have to leave an exhibit empty?  Why not allow web visitors to create a collection instead of only browsing those created by physical visitors?  Would the collection be better served by digitizing specimens and using the digital copies rather than creating ‘digital representation’ icons?  It’s funny how my first visit to this exhibit just seemed like fun to me, but finding it missing made me wonder about what it actually does and if it could be expanded or done more effectively.  I hope that the mini collection creator is restored to Restoring Earth, but I also would like to see these types of exhibit use actual specimen representations and be designed for as wide an audience as possible so that the museum collection is seen and understood by more people than ever before.

Museology and Advocacy

Karl P. Schmidt is an important figure in the history of the Field Museum and its herpetological collection. Schmidt can be an advocate for this collection even though he is no longer living through his museum stories.

I have come across the term ‘museology’ a few times recently in various contexts, but it has me thinking about how we develop our future advocates and spread the word about what it is we do with a natural history museum collection. Most of the references I have heard to museology are in the context of exhibition. How do we get visitors to understand what the museum does from the standpoint of exhibits and programs so that they will feel comfortable using them. What about natural history collection museology? How do we convey to the public what is happening behind the scenes, why it is important, how they can participate in it, and why it deserves appropriate funding. After all, don’t most natural history museums operate under an assumption that what is on exhibit reflects what is stored in the basement and the knowledge gleaned from it?

Because the majority of natural history collections are in storage being studied by ‘top men’ (I couldn’t resist the Indiana Jones reference), they are a mystery or a non-entity to a great majority of the populace. Recent forays into visible storage and digitization are ways for a museum to demonstrate the size and depth of its collection, but does it make people care about that collection any more than if it were a mystery? As I have dipped a toe into museum education, one thing that pops out is that people like people, the things people make, and stories about people. Given this proclivity, I think that we need to get creative with our collections and connect them to people. The most basic and simple way to do this is to have the people in our collections who love them for whatever reason demonstrate that reason to museum visitors, administrators, trustees, and the public in general. A collection manager might take a few of their favorite specimens out on a cart and just talk with visitors about them or a curator might present his latest research and the specimens he used in it to school groups, at an evening forum, or to the board of trustees (how many of your board members ever visit the collection and speak with the staff?). Sure you say, but who has time for that? If we don’t make time, then the other work we do with our collections will suffer the consequences as funding dries up and trustees fail to see the need for all this dusty stuff in some off-site warehouse that no one ever looks at.

I propose that as Museum Advocacy Day approaches, collection people from curators to collection assistants should create programs and spend that day advocating for their collections right inside their own institution. Take a selection of specimens out into the public space of the museum and talk with visitors about what you do on a daily basis and why the collection is meaningful and should be appropriately cared for. Send letters to trustees with a favorite specimen story and thank them for considering the collection as they carry out their trustee duties. Invite an educator to come to the collection and see a specimen that you think could be a spark for an education program. Propose an exhibit, even if it is just one small case about recent research in the collection. Have those who spent time using your collection in the past year send letters to the administration thanking them for maintaining a collection and knowledgeable staff, (Why not self-promote?), that helped them complete their research. And by all means, write your representatives at all levels of government and let them know why your collection is important to the community. On February 25 and 26, be an advocate for your collection or one that you love because if those who love natural history collections don’t show it, how can we expect others to even like them?

AAM Museum Advocacy Day website: http://www.aam-us.org/advocacy/museums-advocacy-day

Book Review: Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections by Suzanne Keene

$46.95 on Amazon ($35.21 for Kindle edition)

This book came to me at just the right time.  The need to address the cost of maintaining a collection against its usefulness to the institution and society in general has been much in my thoughts and this book helped me to see that I am not the only one thinking about it.  Ms. Keene covers all of the bases: What good is this stuff?  Who does it belong to?  How well should it be cared for?  Who cares about it and why?  Who should pay for its care?  Who gets to use it?  Should we add to it, keep it in stasis, or dispose of it?

Backed by real-world examples from collections in multiple disciplines and locations, Ms. Keene attempts to defend the need for collections as providing cultural keys and mirrors.  She reflects upon the usefulness of objects in education and research, but more than that the ways in which objects can provide a creative spark, something I would like to see more museums advertise and own.  She also touches upon the responsibility of institutions to care for their collections as well as to make them accessible and relevant in order that others will see them as important and worth funding.  She takes a viewpoint that might be seen as heretical by museums when she separates collections from their institutions in asserting that “collections are all too easily confused with museums, but they are far more durable and valuable than the museum that happens to house them, perhaps temporarily”.  But it wouldn’t be a good read if there wasn’t a bit of controversy!

I recommend this book to anyone who manages or curates a collection, but even more to anyone who exhibits, educates or administers a museum either as staff or trustee.  Those who work with the collection are usually already aware of its value and usefulness, but those who manage the institution may be far removed from the potential it holds and this book might inspire them to visit the shelves and cabinets that hold the treasures of their institution and lead them to seek ways to bring it safely into the light.