About twenty minutes northeast of my hometown of Bend, Oregon there is a tourist attraction named The High Desert Museum. Concurrent with the name of this institution there are displays ranging a variety of subjects that you’d more or less expect. Otters, covered wagons, that kind of stuff. However…
What has always impressed me most about this museum is of course also it’s creepiest feature: the dioramas. As a result, I grew up for most of my life with an idea of museums as being kind of like higher education wax museums. Apparently historians (or at least museum curators) have decided they are fine with this image, since they’ve been employing it from at least the mid-nineteenth century onward.
Dioramas have an odd cultural position. They’re shoehorned into the most respectable of cultural bulwarks (museums) and are, at the same time, undeniably kitschy as all hell. Probably the greatest of all diorama collections belongs to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and this display not only has some of the world’s most interesting dioramas, but also a kind of bizarre history.
The museum’s diorama collection began with a man named Carl Akeley who spent a large part of his life wandering around British East Africa, killing things, and then posing them in odd shapes after the return trip home. He was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s, to whom he dedicated his autobiography.
Akeley actually thought of himself as a sculptor and looked on his taxidermy practice as a method for making ends meet. However, his odd combination of passions (explorer, artist, dead animal stuffer) made him the perfect candidate for constructing the majestically creepy diorama installations at the American Museum of Natural History.
From the museum’s stuffed gorillas to its slightly racist “Hall of African Peoples,” Akeley reshaped the art of diorama through his remarkable attention to detail and developed eye for naturalistic composition. At this point he’s regarded as a pioneer in the art of taxidermy and the Father of American Diorama.
Akeley died of fever (likely malaria) while in the Congo in 1926, but his work has been imprinted indelibly on the scarred imaginations of curious kids the world over.
Check out some of his more interesting contributions: