Lisa Breslof, Supervising Museum Instructor
|"Dioramas are the primary teaching resource tool at the American Museum of Natural
History," says Lisa Breslof. She ought to know. Lisa came to the Museum seventeen years ago with an undergraduate degree in marine
biology, and since has earned an Ms.Ed. in Museum Leadership in Education from the Bank Street College of Education. Now a Supervising
Museum Instructor, Lisa works with students of all ages, from kindergarten through college. Created from collections brought back from
the farthest reaches of the Earth, "the dioramas and exhibition halls are the Museum," Lisa explains. Their beauty and wealth of detail
makes them not just a favorite stop for visitors, but an invaluable tool for teaching observation skills.
|A diorama is a re-creation of a natural setting and a rendering of a specific moment in time. It represents the geography, geology,
flora, and fauna of that place as accurately as possible, using hidden lights to simulate the lighting at that time of day, and invisible
wires to capture the illusion of flight or movement. The world-famous dioramas in the Museum depict actual sites, like the bighorn sheep's
habitat high in the Rockies, or the Mexican landscape, where jaguars roam. In
the classroom, many teachers have helped students create shoebox dioramas of environments ranging from Native American villages to the
Antarctic ice shelf. Terrariums, which are simply live dioramas, are also a common classroom fixture. These typically depict a natural
setting, such as a rotting log or other small-animal environment.
The cheetah diorama in the Hall of African Mammals. © AMNH Library, Special Collections
Why Dioramas Are Useful Teaching Tools:
They have intrinsic value.
The dioramas at the Museum are of extraordinary quality and importance. "First of all, they might contain important or rare specimens.
Also, many of them feature a particular place on Earth that many people might not ever visit," Lisa points out. "Does everyone get to
visit the Kivu volcanoes in Zaire and see them stream lava?" Dioramas are valuable because they expose people to realistic simulations of actual
places and events, and give people the illusion of being present at the original scene.
The coyote diorama in the Hall of North American Mammals.
© AMNH Library, Special Collections
|They allow us to compare past and present conditions.|
A diorama shows the land and its inhabitants as they were originally encountered. "By standing in front of the exhibition and talking
about the animals and plants in that environment, you can interpret the ecology of the area, how animals interact, and what's going on.
A diorama can also be a useful resource to help discuss the health of an environment, and can be a good springboard to make comparisons to the
same environment today," says Lisa.
|They help us make connections to the real world.|
Using the exhibition halls, and their dioramas, for observation activities is so effective because they allow the teacher to make
connections for the students to the actual subject in the natural world. "Students who want to know more about marine mammals and how
they behave could go into the Hall of Ocean Life and visit the blue whale,
the sea lion, or dolphin dioramas. There they could make comparisons and distinctions about marine mammals, or about particular
groups of whales," suggests Lisa. "Also, seeing the subjects depicted in their natural habitat helps students to have a better
understanding of where and how those animals live. It makes it real."
Different Questioning Strategies Encourage Observation
One way classes can interpret the dioramas in the exhibition galleries at the Museum or in any informal science center is through
the inquiry process, which Lisa defines as "the search for evidence in the exhibit to solve a problem." Students interact with each
other and the exhibits as they search for evidence and answers. The process emphasizes investigation rather than the acquisition of
information, and develops skills with wide applications. Lisa encourages students to stop and thoughtfully take in an exhibit, and
to see connections between different objects in the display. "That's done through asking questions like, 'Can you find evidence of
recently-hatched or very young birds in this exhibit?', 'What evidence can you find of any nests?', 'Can you come up with some
evidence in this exhibit of how a parent bird feeds its young?'" The answers aren't obvious, Lisa cautions. "You have to stand
there and look for a while, as though you were out in the woods looking for birds with binoculars. With a diorama, you have the
good fortune of having that whole event right before you, captured for observation and study."
Focused Questions Help Students Learn
As the observation progresses, teachers can help students acquire information by asking questions at different levels.
1. Gather the Basics: Questions like, "How many animals can you see in this
scene?" encourage the students to look carefully. They can then write their findings down or describe them orally. Other kinds of
exhibitions and questions encourage the use of other senses, like touch or hearing, back in the classroom.
2. Organize and Process Information: Questions at this level like, "Which
animals do you think are the best runners and why?" help students compare and contrast, analyze, explain, and summarize concepts.
Students can record their findings in various ways, such as drawing, circling words, listing, describing, and counting. "If you
wanted to record the behavior most widely depicted in Museum dioramas, an observation might be, 'What type of behavior is the
ostrich demonstrating in the ostrich-warthog diorama?'" suggests Lisa. "The students could describe that the ostrich is trying to
protect its newly hatched young from the warthogs entering the nesting area. They can draw the behavior, or they can first discuss
it in a group and then write about it." Another set of questions might be, "Can you distinguish between the male and female ostrich
parent? What distinguishing characteristics might the answer be based on?" These are just some ways in which data can be retrieved
from a Museum diorama.
This diorama depicts ostrich parents protecting their newly hatched young from a pack of wart hogs. This diorama in is located in the Hall of African Mammals.
© AMNH Library, Special Collections
3. Develop New Insight: At this level, educators can ask students to draw
on what they have gathered, and their own personal knowledge or imagination to articulate an idea or theory. For example, "What do you
think the leopard is going to do next?" "How might this scene be different if it were winter/summer?" "Does this region of the world
have seasonal change?" Students can write or draw their answers, or express them aloud.
Observations Can Lead to Future Research
"Recorded observations serve as the basis for follow-up discussions, either in the Museum or back in the classroom," notes Lisa.
For example, setting up a fish tank or terrarium to observe a small reptile or mammal could lead to a discussion of animal
behavior. "From there, school projects can be created that would last a month or year, and would investigate all aspects of that
particular animal and its natural history." She points out that students can put information collected in the Museum to many uses:
"to write a short story, to develop a play, to conduct a laboratory study, or to organize an exhibit in the Museum, in the
classroom, in the home, or online. By observing items carefully over an extended period, the student not only formulates a clear
visual image of the objects or exhibit, but develops techniques of observation that can be used in the future."
A Museum Visit Can Kindle a Passion
For Lisa, "the most exciting part about teaching at the Museum is visiting different parts of the world in one place." She knows
that dioramas play a key role in awakening this sense of excitement. When students study these meticulously-created scenes, they
learn to look differently at the world around them, to notice details that otherwise might have escaped their attention, and, as a
result, perhaps bring a greater sense of anticipation and curiosity to the task.