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Behind the Glass
An insider’s look at the world’s greatest collection of museum dioramas.

© 2006 American Museum of Natural History

I would have to call myself a museum brat from one of the last of the museum families. Even the word museum within my immediate family is a shorthand for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. My dad, Nicholas Amorosi, worked at the museum for 32 years (1956–1988) as the staff illustrator for what now is called the Division of Anthropology. I started working at the museum in the 1970s, during my college years, as an outside contractor for the People’s Hall of Asia, and later worked on smaller temporary exhibitions. I left the museum temporarily to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology; today I am a research associate within the same division. I have had the rare opportunity to visit many of the animal dioramas and new exhibition halls. My history at AMNH has afforded me the rare opportunity to visit inside many of the animal dioramas and new exhibition halls. While entering a diorama, or “case,” without its front glass, I have often been awestruck by an alternate reality—a reality that is so exceedingly perfect that it almost seems to be a portal into another part of the world.

As of one of the museum’s “old-timers”—a term I can’t abide—I am the bearer of an unrecorded history of how these dioramas were crafted. Until recently that history has been an oral tradition, if not actual folklore, passed down from one generation to the next by the museum’s staff. Now, in Windows on Nature (Abrams, 180 pages, $40), author Steve Quinn—a colleague and current senior project manager for the Department of Exhibition—records these details of unknown history, in a sense, removing the glass for the museum visitor. The reader is treated to an amazing array of photographs. Black-and-white photographs detail the construction of each case, while color photos depict the final version of the animal dioramas. Windows on Nature spans almost 100 years, documenting the construction and conservation of these cases.

Through candid shots and stories about the artists, sculptors, and scientific staff and curators, the author has done a wonderful job portraying the people who created these dioramas. Many of the artists are people I knew when they were considered senior staff. Some were kind enough to give me painting tips on the composition of landscapes and the “how to” of atmospheric colors. As I struggled to understand the relationship of dramatic lighting and the use of color, my father gave me a puzzle to solve. In the Libyan Desert case, visitors often pass by the scimitar horned oryx antelopes without realizing its design ingenuity. When, in 1939, the case’s artist, Perry Wilson, wanted to depict a sunrise scene with long shadows being cast from a rock outcrop that appears on the left side of the case, he painstakingly created the effect of early morning light by painting the background much lighter than the foreground of dark muted earth tones. The oryx models were placed in the, foreground but the overhead lighting of the case cast shadows in the opposite direction, destroying Wilson’s illusion. The solution to this problem was simple. Wilson altered the brown colors on the floor so as to seemingly paint out the individual animal shadows. It took me a week of careful observation to come to this realization.

Although it is hard to accept today that the hunting of animals was once part of a much older conservation ethos, the animal dioramas have preserved a type of nature for subsequent generations by promoting awareness of our planet’s diversity. The museum’s dioramas have replicated environments that in some cases date back 80 to 90 years and may have long since disappeared. For instance, the background of the African buffalo portrays a Kenyan “tinga-tinga kubawa” marsh landscape dotted with buffalo that has since been transformed into agricultural fields.

Entering any of the animal halls recalls a time of global high adventure and exploration during the early 20th century. This period has been termed the “golden age of exploration” for the American Museum and is filled with fantastic stories. Carl Akeley, the genius behind the Hall of African Mammals, was severely mauled by the leopard now on display in the hall. The two had a hand-to-paw fight, though Akeley somehow managed to kill the leopard before he slipped into unconsciousness. It was well known among museum staffers that the location of the mountain gorilla case in Rwanda, is where Carl Akeley is buried, fulfilling his wish that his resting spot be in the Rift Valley landscape, which he considered the most beautiful in of all of Africa.

As a teenager I always loved the story behind the Gabon viper located in the mandrill case and prepared for display by Bob Kane, whom I met through my father. Bob was fond of telling people not to feel too sorry for the dead viper, which almost killed him. In the field, he had collected the snake in order to make a plaster mold for reference and then prepare the body for taxidermy. While making the mold the heat of the plaster brought the viper back to life. It lunged at his hand but, fortunately, missed. Had Bob been bitten, he would not have survived the venom from one of the most lethal of snakes. I remember hearing this field story over and over again when the Hall of Reptiles was being finished. One of this hall’s crowning glories was the reproduction of a living Indian rock python by Frederica Lesser and David Schwendeman. The living animal was anaesthetized around a clutch of eggs and then molded. There was some joking that the python might wake up too soon and avenge the Gabon viper.

Most visitors associate the American Museum with its famous and impressive dinosaurs. Of equal stature is the African elephant herd—with good reason. It’s hard to convey the magic of this animal grouping that still occupies the center of the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. These life-size elephants are not behind glass (though a bench seat occupies the base of this exhibit welcoming visitors to sit and rest while looking at the dioramas). Simply standing next to the bull and his herd has silenced many a noisy child. My fondest memory of this hall was being able to sit beneath him with my brother before the museum opened. I never knew how my father arranged this. Museum security then and now will certainly stop anyone from even trying to touch these mounts. But thanks to Steve Quinn’s book, the case’s front glass is off and you are invited in to have a good look around.

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