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.

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