Andros Coral Reef Diorama

Part of Hall of Ocean Life.

Detail view of the Andros Coral Reef Diorama shows the meticulously painted corals. M. Shanley/© AMNH
Two stories tall. Beneath the arch, a flamingo-filled sky. Below, a coral reef seen from the bottom of the sea.

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 upper level of the Andros Coral Reef diorama depicts the sky and water, and the lower level depicts the corals beneath the water.
D. Finnin/© AMNH

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. 

Depiction of the submarine tube that was created to obtain the underwater scientific and artistic details used to recreate the Andros Coral Reef.
The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science

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).

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.

Museum artisan stands inside the giant coral display to make repairs.
R. Mickens/© AMNH

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.