Arts & Culture

“Dioramas are magic. They are the ultimate analogue experience” — The obsessively detailed, outrageously expensive, mesmerizing world of dioramas

In Wood Buffalo National Park, near the border between Northwest Territories and Alberta, I watch two ancient foes compete in a timeless faceoff: a bison, its woolly head cocked, angles its imposing horns downward, steeling itself for the inevitable fight with two Arctic wolves that appear ready to pounce. But I’m not in the Far North. I’m standing just a metre or so from the bison/wolves diorama in the Mammal Gallery of the Canadian Museum of Nature, peering through an enormous glass pane, mesmerized, wondering how this conflict will end.

This diorama is one of 18 similar displays in the museum. From shrews to cougars, all combine real animals that have been prepared by a taxidermist with real and recreated flora and enhanced by lighting and painted landscapes.

Dioramas date back to the 1800s. They were invented for theatre productions and peep shows but near the end of the century were adopted by museums as a way to show animals in their natural habitat. In dioramas, art, perspective, and lighting combine to create a three-dimensional illusion that captivates viewers. And it does so without modern technology: digital screens adjacent to the dioramas, which flash different photographic perspectives of the dioramas themselves, go practically unnoticed.

“Dioramas are magic. They are the ultimate analogue experience. They were always designed to be an immersive experience,” says Carolyn Leckie, a conservator with the Canadian Museum of Nature, adding that their ability to transport the viewer to a specific place and time is the result of a careful, meticulous process.

For example, the animals in the bison/wolves scene once roamed the northern plains. They were studied in their natural habitat in Wood Buffalo National Park, after which they were “collected” (killed and prepared by a taxidermist) and posed according to the behaviour observed by the field teams. Even some of the flora around the animals is real. “All the grass there is real grass that’s been dried,” says Leckie, explaining that the evergreens in the scene were soaked in glycerine to keep them supple.

Indeed, it’s all in the details, Leckie says — an “obsessive” scientific and artistic attention to the subtleties of the natural world. This obsessiveness emerged in the early part of the 20th century, stemming from a desire by curators, preservationists, scientists, and artists to present nature accurately in a time before colour photography and international travel were such a big part of our culture.

The first three dioramas at the Canadian Museum of Nature were commissioned in the 1930s — around the same time that the American Museum of Natural History in New York City was preparing to unveil its now famous Hall of North American Mammals, which would open to great fanfare in 1942. In Canada, teams of scientists and artists were sent out into the country’s wilds to document and collect specimens. “It was a marriage of art and science,” says Leckie.

A sense of environmental urgency also motivated the Museum of Nature: some Canadian animal habitats were in peril due to the encroachment of industry and human populations. By the beginning of the 20th century, the passenger pigeon, for example, had gone extinct, and the bison, which had once swept through the Prairies in indescribable numbers, were quickly disappearing.

The museum’s other dioramas were commissioned in the 1950s and ’60s. They represent the last of those obsessively detailed displays.

“They were hugely expensive, consuming nearly 25 per cent of the museum’s budget,” says Leckie. “Even at the time, they were considered an outrageous investment in resources. But they did it because these animals, and these places, were disappearing. And the public was crazy for them.”

Though the museum is no longer commissioning large-scale (and obsessively precise) dioramas, they continue the tradition in other ways. The latest diorama, which was unveiled in 2006, can be found at the entrance to the  Mammal Gallery. (Leckie admits that it’s a bit more theatrical and less accurate, because it’s simply so expensive to create authentic dioramas.) Even so, dioramas will always have a place at the museum and won’t be replaced with less expensive digital experiences incorporating virtual- or augmented-reality technologies.

“It’s an old-fashioned definition, but museums exist to collect, preserve, and interpret. They are about the real,” says Leckie.

“The best virtual reality approximates what it’s like to be in a real place, and these do the same,” adds Dana Murchison, head of programming at the museum. “I do think in the future there will be opportunities to play with the diorama model, but the connection to the real is something you’re never going to want to lose.”

Both Leckie and Murchison agree that the dioramas have an enduring appeal, a sentiment echoed by the late Clarence Tillenius, who served as artistic director for many of the dioramas constructed in the 1950s and ’60s.

With regard to his work on the dioramas, Tillenius, who passed away in 2004, once said, “I believe that there is in the universe an underlying rhythm, a stream of life common to all ages; that the work of an artist who could tap into that rhythm would be timeless …”

As I head out of the museum, I notice a group of children enraptured by a grizzly bear — all of them seem to be taken in by that timeless rhythm of these treasures.