Andros Coral Reef Diorama
Part of Hall of Ocean Life.
Like the other habitat dioramas in the Museum, the Andros Coral Reef in the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life depicts a real place at a specific point in time: a Bahamian coral reef on a June day in the 1920s.
And like the other dioramas, it features specimens gathered in the field mixed with models created from detailed artists’ sketches, re-creating a three-dimensional scene from nature to transport Museum visitors to glimpse natural wonders around the world. But the Andros Coral Reef diorama is unique in that it is the only two-level diorama in the Museum.
The project that led to this diorama's unveiling in 1935 took 12 years, beginning with a 1923 field expedition–the first of five that would bring scientists, artists, and model-makers to Andros and other Bahamian islands. Roy Waldo Miner, who oversaw the exhibit as the Museum’s curator of living invertebrates, described it as “probably the most extensive and difficult group yet attempted in this Museum, in view of the multiplicity of life presented and the character of the problems involved.”
“The ideal museum group is not merely a work of art. It is a record of living beings in their natural state...emphasizing the truth that the real unit in nature is the association rather than the individual.”
The expedition team included several specialists: painter and modeler Chris Olsen, assistant modeler Bruce C. Brunner, colorist W. H. Southwick, scientist-artist George H. Childs, glassblower Herman Mueller, and background artist Francis Lee Jaques, who painted the brilliant skyscape above the islands of Andros and Goat Cay for the diorama’s second story. They faced one major challenge: how to accurately observe and record nature on the ocean floor at a time before self-contained underwater diving gear. In the end, the team relied in part on an ingenious “submarine tube” that stretched down, accordion-like, from beneath a boat to a glass-fronted chamber, from which they could take still pictures and movies of the reef and sketch the corals and their colors from life.
Underwater scenes were also recorded with cameras in watertight boxes—and even painted in oils by Chris Olsen, who dove and painted preliminary sketches of the sunlight-dappled reef and its waters on an oiled canvas stretched over a sheet of glass on a weighted easel. On the fifth and final expedition, Miner himself dove down with Museum-prepared models to compare them to living specimens and was, he wrote, “greatly gratified … that they could not be told apart when viewed at arm’s length.”
The team also made coral collections, primarily of the aptly named elkhorn, staghorn, and fan species, shipping specimens back to the Museum embedded in sponge clippings for safe transport. (Find out more about the expeditions in the video below).
[TRIUMPHANT OLD-HOLLYWOOD-STYLE MUSIC BEGINS]
[A hand removes a thin, magazine-like leaflet from a bookshelf. The leaflet’s cover says “A Transplanted Coral Reef by Roy Waldo Miner” against a colorful watercolor depiction of a coral reef.]
[Close-up view of the leaflet, with the title and author clearly visible.]
[The magazine’s cover is opened, revealing an old black-and-white photograph of the Museum’s two-storied Hall of Ocean Life, with several display cases and specimens displayed. Text on screen reads “Roy Waldo Miner, 1933”]
ROY WALDO MINER (ACTOR PORTRAYAL) (CURATOR, 1905-1943): We pass through the archway leading to the Hall of Ocean Life and find ourselves surrounding an enormous hall
[Fade to a closer view of the photograph, focusing on a diorama of a coral reef.]
MINER: What first strikes our attention and holds our eye is the enormous, brilliantly lighted group immediately facing us at the farthest end.
[In black and white, we see two visitors looking up at the large lower portion of the diorama, depicting an underwater coral reef. The visitors’ heads reach only about half-way up the height of the diorama.]
MINER: We find ourselves looking through the coral forest.
[The diorama changes from black-and-white to full color, with vibrant yellows, oranges, blues, and purples.]
MINER: We are standing on the floor of the sea!
[Museum 150th anniversary logo appears on-screen followed by the title: “Standing on the Floor of the Sea: The Andros Coral Reef Diorama”]
[Exhibition Associate STEPHEN QUINN speaks on-camera, in front of an undetermined museum diorama.]
STEPHEN QUINN (ARTIST AND EXHIBITION ASSOCIATE): Coming here to the American Museum and seeing these exhibits…
[As he speaks, we see slowly moving contemporary footage of the Polar Bear, Harbor Seal, Sargasso Sea, and Northern Sea Lion dioramas from the Museum’s Hall of Ocean Life.]
QUINN: …you can see that these were artists who were driven to attempt to get as close as they could to the beauty and spectacular forms, color, moods, in nature.
[We land on the Andros Coral Reef diorama.]
QUINN: The Andros Coral Reef diorama…
[Wide shot of the Hall of Ocean Life, 2021, as seen from the entrance. It mimics the view from the old photograph seen at the beginning of the video. Beyond the iconic Blue Whale model, we see the brightly-lit upper- and lower- portions of the Andros Coral Reef diorama.]
QUINN: It’s one of the unique exhibits in the museum in that it is a two-storied diorama.
[From the upper-level of the Hall of Ocean Life, we see the upper portion of the Andros Coral Reef diorama: A semi-circular painting of the Andros Barrier Reef with waves gently crashing into the land.]
QUINN: The upper portion views the coral reef above water. And there’s a beautiful string of flamingos flying.
[Close view of the painted flamingos. FLAMINGO CRIES are heard in the background]
QUINN: Below the water level…
[From the ground floor, the camera tilts down from the painted upper-portion of the diorama to the lower-portion of the diorama depicting the under-water reef—giving the impression that the viewer is simultaneously viewing the reef from above and below the water-level.]
QUINN: …it’s estimated that there are 40 tons of coral inside that exhibit.
[Color photographs of the diorama circa 1930 appear onscreen.]
MINER: Forty tons of coral rising from the floor of the Hall of Ocean Life, their serrated branches interlaced as of old and once more invested with the delicate hues that gave them their pristine beauty.
[Modern footage of the diorama, highlighting a model of a Blue Angelfish, a yellow soft coral, and a Queen Triggerfish.
QUINN: Immediately seeing these, you can understand that those involved were in the field.
[A black-and-white photograph appears of a man looking through a microscope at a desk covered in specimen jars. Onscreen text identifies him as “Roy Waldo Miner, Curator 1905-1943.”]
QUINN: Roy Miner, who was the curator in charge of invertebrates, was visiting the reef below the water level to record all of the abundance and diversity of the coral reef.
[Museum archival footage from Dr. Miner’s expeditions shows fish swimming around the Andros Coral Reef, followed by the crew sending a diver and an underwater camera below the surface from their boat.]
MINER: If it is desired to build a group which will faithfully depict the life of the sea bottom, one must descend to the bottom of the sea!
[Dr. Miner, in an old-fashioned striped bathing costume, climbs down a ladder on the side of the boat towards the water and has a large steel diving helmet lowered over his head.]
QUINN: And when he was doing this, which was the 1920s, this predated scuba.
[A helmet-clad member of the expedition stands at the bottom of the shallow water taking photographs of the coral and animals.]
QUINN: So it required that the artists and scientists descend to the ocean floor with steel diving helmets and pumped air to allow them to move about, collect specimens, and record the behavior of the animals.
[Examples of the photographs taken underwater this way cycle onscreen, showing intricately shaped collections of coral structures and fish swimming through them.]
MINER: Caverns and arches of coral, fantastic in form, showed clearly through the unbelievably transparent water.
[Archival video shows Dr. Miner wearing a diving helmet and moving around the floor of the sea, examining the coral.]
MINER: If one is careful about crevices, and watches not to step on a sting-ray, there is not much to fear. Not nearly so much as there is in crossing Broadway during the rush hour!
[Black and white archival footage of a busy New York City street appears with CAR HORN SOUNDS.]
[Museum archival video of a man (Chris Olson) holding paintbrushes in his hand as he prepares to descend underwater in a diving helmet.]
QUINN: Chris Olsen actually descended to the seafloor and did oil painting sketches on canvas stretched on glass…
[Chris Olsen, wearing a diving helmet, paints the coral reef from the bottom of the sea on an easel fixed in the sand.]
QUINN…to record the effect of sunlight at that depth, approximately 25 feet, and also accurately record what colors do at that depth as well.
[One of Chris Olsen’s completed underwater paintings shows bright yellow-hued coral and a vivid blue-and-green fish.]
[One of Dr. Miner’s leaflets shows images of coral specimens brought back to the Museum. Museum archival video fades over it, showing more detailed examples of the coral specimens.]
QUINN: So they came back from a number of expeditions with the actual specimens and reconfigured them here in New York City.
[Archival photographs of Olsen among the many large coral specimens while planning the diorama layout.]
MINER: Olsen busied himself in constructing miniature models of each essential coral mass, and these were built up into a miniature composition. This gave us a working model.
[Black-and-white archival video of Dr. Miner and Chris Olsen discussing a large piece of coral in front of the metal frame of the diorama.]
MINER: A skilled iron-worker began erecting a sloping steel framework in the form of a grid, to hold our heavy but fragile corals.
[Color archival video of fish specimens in the completed diorama circa 1933.]
MINER: The specimens will be cast in wax, from the plaster models made from actual fishes in the field, and colored to the verisimilitude of life.
[Contemporary video of the diorama today.]
QUINN: As you look at the exhibit, it features all of the fish, sponges, gorgonians, lobster, coral that occurred and were observed by Miner and his team.
[Color archival video of completed diorama circa 1933.]
MINER: A world of life in New York City that would otherwise require long voyages, special equipment, and the willingness to don diving helmet and leaden weights in order to lower himself into Davy Jones’s Locker!
[Black-and-white archival video of artists painting and installing pieces of coral for the diorama.]
QUINN: The work we do today stands on the shoulders of these great artists that came before.
[The archival video fades into modern video of the diorama, which then fades into underwater video of coral reefs in situ today.]
QUINN: Just by the veracity and the great efforts to match nature, there is this humility before nature that reminds us through these wonderful exhibits…
[The coral reef footage fades into a wide shot of the Museum’s Hall of Ocean Life, with the Andros Coral Reef diorama visible behind the Blue Whale model.]
QUINN: …that there is a bigger world out there.
[The triumphant old-Hollywood-style music SWELLS as the Hall of Ocean Life fades into an open page of Dr. Miner’s leaflet. A hand closes the leaflet and replaces it on the bookshelf.]
Back in New York, the corals were cleaned and given a thin coating of beeswax, colored to simulate the living animal tissue that covers them in life. To reconstruct the reef itself, 8 tons of structural steel was arranged in an elaborate armature to support the corals and other marine life in exactly the position in which they had been found.
“The ideal museum group is not merely a work of art,” Miner wrote in Natural History magazine in 1931. “It is a record of living beings in their natural state and environment, depicted in their proper relations to their surroundings, and emphasizing the truth that the real unit in nature is the association rather than the individual.”
A visitor favorite for decades, the diorama underwent an update in 2003, with a thorough cleaning and installation of new fiber optic lighting to reveal its vibrant original colors and detail—and to restore an invaluable window into a thriving marine habitat in the early 20th century.
Today, coral reefs, which are home to a quarter of all known marine species, face multiple threats worldwide, including coral disease, bleaching from warming waters, overfishing, pollution, and extreme weather.