Through the Plexiglass: A History of Museum Dioramas

How animal displays have shaped, and been shaped by, humans’ relationship with the natural world: an Object Lesson

In a scene from the fifth season of Mad Men, Sally Draper and her friend Glen are framed by a wintry musk-ox museum diorama:

Sally: How do they get all these animals?

Glen: Teddy Roosevelt killed them.

Sally: Do you think they were a family?

Glen: I hope so. Otherwise, they’d be walking around saying, “We just need a baby to finish this diorama.”

This exchange gets to the heart of habitat dioramas: Created to mimic the natural context of the animals that they contain, these scenes invite their viewers to question how those animals relate to each other, their environment, and humans. In her book The Breathless Zoo, Rachel Poliquin writes that “taxidermy is deeply marked by human longing,” exposing our hopes and fears about our place in the natural world. Dioramas represent an attempt to make sense of nature, but they also reveal humans’ deeply complicated relationship with it.

Habitat dioramas—the kind with a painted background, plants in the foreground, and an animated animal in mid-action—are generally credited to Carl Akeley, a taxidermist and expeditionist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ironically, these museum displays were created, in part, to promote the conservation of the species that had been killed for display, highlighting the strange tension between animals as hunting trophies and creatures worthy of our empathy.

As Akeley saw it, though, the habitat diorama embodied a different tension, one between science and art. Akeley had become frustrated with the habitat-free, single-subject exhibition style common to most museums. If it were just about the animals, the older, curio-style displays would suffice—but Akeley wanted to give museum visitors a sense of the animal’s life, to animate the inanimate behind glass. On museum expeditions, he would measure the carcasses of his kills, preserve their hides with salt, and, once back at the museum, sculpt the animals’ musculature out of clay or plaster. Akeley’s 1890 muskrat diorama, which many consider the first specimen of the form he pioneered, is still viewable at the Milwaukee Public Museum, in an unassuming hallway near the bathroom.

The artful representation of the habitat is part of the narrative of dioramas. From the muskrats on, Akeley was careful to create animacy in his taxidermy, crafting habitats that conveyed both realism and emotion. On his plan for the American Museum of Natural History’s gorilla diorama, Akeley wrote: “I have been constantly aware of the rapid and disconcerting disappearance of African wildlife. [This] gave rise to the vision of the culmination of my work in a great museum exhibit, artistically conceived, which should perpetuate the animal life, the native customs, and the scenic beauties of Africa.” Both the real (animal skins and habitat details like plants) and the rendered (how the human artist interprets and frames the animal) work together to provide the narratives of habitat dioramas.

Around the turn of the 20th century, museum expeditions like Akeley’s hunted and killed a staggering number of animals around the world. For Americans, the timing of this newfound access to animals—transformed from from wild and possibly dangerous, creatures to mummified curios—was especially poignant. The 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, which debuted some of the first major habitat dioramas, was also the setting of Frederick Jackson Turner’s declaration that the American West had been closed.

Turner based his assessment on 1890 census reports that the frontier was largely settled. A settled West, he argued, negated the prevailing American identity, which depended on an untamed western frontier: “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West,” he argued. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” As Jon Mooallem points out in his book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, the U.S. used animals “to contemplate its own character” as a land of plenty, one in which hunting was free from aristocratic European regulations. At the end of the 19th century, it became clear that American wildlife was dwindling and that “the story of American wildlife would become a story of an infinitely receding Eden.”

Habitat dioramas, then, preserved something of this dwindling American mythos—but their success in doing so depended on their veracity, which required that curators invest their habitat displays with immense detail. Akeley and William Hornaday, the chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, took pains to gather what Hornaday called “natural accessories” to make the dioramas both realistic and artistic. In the foreground, plants were transplanted from a real site or recreated in a natural likeness; backgrounds were painted from site photographs and designed to recall the sense of a far-reaching space, a space that Turner had declared lost. And, of course, the taxidermy was critical, as a credible illusion required that the animals appear to be animate. The displays succeeded or failed based on the degree to which they recalled the idea of an American wild, an ecosystem to be both exploited and preserved.

Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps the most popular embodiment of this moment in the American cultural identity. Roosevelt’s 1909 Smithsonian expedition to Africa still holds the title of highest number of kills: 5,013 mammals, 4,453 birds, and 2,322 reptiles and amphibians, for a total of 11,788 animals. But in what seems like a striking contrast to contemporary eyes, Roosevelt was also a stalwart conservationist who created the U.S. Forest Service, establishing 150 national forests, five national parks, and numerous animal preserves across hundreds of millions of acres.

Hornaday, like Roosevelt, was a crusader for conservation: He fought to establish the National Zoological Park, which housed live buffalo, testified before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources to protect seals from slaughter, and lobbied to restrict the sale of game meat in New York state. And, like Roosevelt, Hornaday racked up expedition kills in the name of conservation. In the 1880s, concerned with the near-extinction of the American bison, Hornaday set out on a series of western expeditions to the Montana, Dakota, and Wyoming territories, killing 25 buffalo for use in museum dioramas, which he called “artistic groups.” The resulting exhibits both informed the public of the animals’ endangerment and ensured that, if the American buffalo were to become extinct, something of the animal would remain.

Akeley’s habitat dioramas expanded upon Hornaday’s approach to museum displays. His gorilla diorama for the American Museum of Natural History, in particular, provided a foundation for Americans’ understanding of gorillas and their connection with humans. In an account of one of his expeditions, he described approaching an adolescent gorilla after spearing him: “I came up before he was dead. There was a heartbreaking expression of piteous pleading on his face. He would have come to my arms for comfort.” At the time, this sympathetic tale was one of the only written accounts of human interaction with gorillas, and sparked a significant popular interest in the animals. Throughout his writings, Akeley imbued the animals he killed with human-like traits—and even today, few other spaces package animals for a human audience as effectively as the kind of habitat diorama he helped to develop. Inanimate creatures, taken from the animate world, are posed into imagined scenes: lions attacking, leopards prowling, gorillas interacting as family units.

Today, some museums seek a similar experience through online interactive exhibits. The websites of the Field Museum and the American Natural History Museum, for instance, both allow visitors to view image archives of expeditions and diorama painting, stories of habitat-diorama preservation, and information about the conservation of the displays’ subjects. The Field Museum’s website contains a collection of videos starring its Chief Curiosity Correspondent, Emily Graslie, who adds a contemporary frame to the older dioramas and shows the behind-the-scenes taxidermic processes at the museum. Graslie also takes care to animate the humans in her stories, discussing Akeley, for instance, as both a significant contributor to the field and a flawed conservationist-hunter.

When I tour the Field Museum, I usually exit the second-floor “Evolving Planet” exhibit, with its mass-extinction counter; walk through the gift shop with its stuffed elephants, and head downstairs to the older dioramas and specimens of the “Messages from the Wilderness” exhibit, some of which date back to the Columbian Exposition. The route, from extinction to carefully crafted habitat, is a haunting testament to the complexity of the animal-human relationship these dioramas represent: Many of them, intended to avert extinction for their subject species, also served as professional trophies for hunter-scientists like Akeley and Hornaday. Walking through the museums that bear their legacy—seeing our own reflections in the plate glass between us and the animals—is a reminder that our concept of the natural world, and humans’ place in it, is no less complicated today.