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Science & Technology - Society & Culture

Hidden Treasures: Refreshing the Dioramas at the Academy of Natural Sciences

April 10, 2018

The gorilla diorama, which originally opened in 1938. Photo courtesy the Academy of Natural Sciences.
The gorilla diorama, which originally opened in 1938. Photo courtesy the Academy of Natural Sciences.

The gorillas look at home in the lush junglescape, so much so that you might miss the juvenile male chilling under the shade of a tree in the corner of the scene. In the foreground, a few marble berry plants — their metallic blue fruit is supposed to be the brightest substance in nature — have kept their shape but lost their color. And the swallowtail butterfly that’s perched delicately on a leaf is apparently out of place altogether: You’d never find one in the part of central Africa this scene is meant to depict.

So when they pull the gorillas out for a cleaning, they’ll find a new home for the butterfly, too.

This year, the Academy of Natural Sciences is cleaning two of its popular dioramas for the first time since they were installed in the 1930s — and inviting the public to watch the process. Conservators and artists are working to renovate the gorilla scene from modern-day Central African Republic as well as the display of takins (a type of horned goat found in the Himalayas) from an area along the border between Tibet and Sichuan, China. The work, according to the Academy, involves installing new lights and labels, repairing the background paintings, clearing away layers of dust and propping up plants that have begun to sag.

It’s the kind of pampering that’s fitting for a pair of installations that are so central to the Academy’s appeal.

The takin diorama, which opened in 1935. Photo courtesy the Academy of Natural Sciences.
The takin diorama, which opened in 1935. Photo courtesy the Academy of Natural Sciences.

“The dioramas are a wonderful medium for inviting conversations with visitors about biodiversity, evolution, and art,” said Jennifer Sontchi, senior director for exhibits and public spaces at the Academy. “Ecosystems from across the globe are featured up-close and life size — something neither television nor the internet can deliver. This immediacy and authenticity is awe-inspiring in person. And that awe sparks curiosity, which is the first step toward engagement with science.”

The animals depicted in the dioramas are real taxidermy specimens that were collected on foreign trips in the first part of the 20th century. The Western Lowland Gorillas (fun fact: their scientific name is “gorilla gorilla gorilla”) were collected on an expedition in 1934 and donated to the Academy, which opened the diorama in 1938. The takins, which are depicted in a cloud forest surrounded by pink and yellow rhododendrons, were collected in West China in 1931 and 1932. The diorama was opened in 1935.

Other dioramas in the Academy’s collection depict bison, musk-ox, pandas, lions, tigers, bears and yaks. All were created in order to expose the American public to scenes of wildlife in far-flung corners of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

Although the specimens are well-preserved, everything breaks down over time.

“Well-cared-for taxidermy can certainly last a very, very long time,” said Sontchi. “However, the effects of fluctuating temperatures, humidity and even visible light take their toll on taxidermy over time. Eventually, specimens become brittle and discolored.”

Like most dioramas, the takin and gorilla scenes are part art and part science. The animal specimens are real, but most of the plants are recreations based on accounts from the expeditions on which the animals were collected. The backdrops are painted by artists. The Academy recognized that the gorilla and takin dioramas were due for a cleaning, but also recognized the need as an opportunity to both improve the displays, generate more public interest, and correct a small handful of errors, like an out-of-place butterfly.

“While our job with these renovations is to clean and repair some of the damage that time has wrought, it is also an opportunity to share stories about the flora and fauna featured in a whole new way,” said Sontchi. “A fresh, up-to-date graphic panel and a digital label featuring video will allow visitors to explore more of what they want to know about our ecosystems than ever before.”

This story was published in the spring 2018 issue of Drexel Quarterly.