The Man Who Made Habitat Dioramas

by AMNH on

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Born on May 19, 1864, in Clarendon, New York, Carl Akeley is considered by many to be the father of modern taxidermy. He was also an explorer and naturalist who used art to celebrate wilderness and to argue for its protection.

Carl Akeley modeling an elephant
Carl Akeley modeling an elephant for Hall of African Mammals in 1914.

In 1889, while working at the Milwaukee Public Museum, he created the first habitat diorama. The scene, showing a group of muskrats in a marsh, displayed mounted specimens in a three-dimensional foreground that re-created a specific habitat and merged with a realistic background painting. It was the beginning of a long career of transporting viewers to animal habitats around the world via stunningly detailed dioramas—the original virtual reality.

African elephant diorama in Akeley Hall of African Mammals
The African elephant diorama is one of the Museum's iconic exhibits.
© AMNH/K. Regan

By the time he arrived at the American Museum of Natural History in 1909, Akeley had developed a sculptural technique for taxidermy that became known as the “Akeley method.” His process required taking precise measurements, making plaster impressions, and using bones from a specimen’s skeleton to create lifelike clay sculptures over which skin would be fitted. Akeley’s work elevated the practice from a crude craft to an art form, and his techniques became the basis for modern taxidermy.

This precise and detailed taxidermy style is on spectacular display in the Museum’s Akeley Hall of African Mammals, a hall of 28 habitat dioramas conceived by Akeley during a Museum expedition. Akeley did not live to see the hall, which became one of the most famous diorama galleries in the world, completed. He died on Mount Mikeno—a site depicted in the mountain gorilla diorama, in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo—in 1926, a decade before the hall opened.

Mountain Gorilla Diorama in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals
Akeley was an advocate for mountain gorillas, like those represented in this diorama.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

It was his fifth expedition to the site, and by that final trip, Akeley had become a fierce and successful advocate for protecting the mountain gorillas he had observed there. His efforts had helped convince King Albert of Belgium to set aside the area, as part of about 200 square miles of forest in the Belgian Congo, as a gorilla sanctuary in 1925, creating Africa’s first national park. Today, the site is part of the 3,000-square-mile Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is home to a quarter of the world’s mountain’s gorillas.