Restoring Iconic Dioramas in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals

by AMNH on

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After a painstaking, yearlong process of restoration, the spectacular dioramas in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals are back to doing what they were always meant to do: transporting visitors to beautiful vistas as far away as Yellowstone or Alaska.

The tradition of habitat dioramas at the Museum is a storied one, beginning with ornithologist Frank Chapman’s research trips to create the Hall of North American Birds.

Museum diorama of over 20 birds in trees or on the ground by a body of water, plus a nest in a tree with four baby birds.
At AMNH | Hall of North American Birds (3rd Floor): In the early 1900s, birds in Florida's Cuthbert Rookery, depicted here, were hunted for their plumes, which were sold to decorate ladies' hats. A game warden was murdered in 1905 at Cuthbert Rookery by commercial plume hunters. In response, President Roosevelt appointed more wardens and assured the Audubon Society that he was committed to ending the sale of wild bird feathers. 

Carl Akeley perfected taxidermy methods in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, which he imagined would provide visitors with glimpses of African landscapes as though through the windows of a moving train.

A diorama of African gorillas shows several adults and one juvenile in a jungle setting with a mountain in the background.

At a time when nature photography and film, not to mention international travel, were still rare, the experience of standing before a carefully crafted scene—re-created with strict attention to detail from field sketches and photographs taken at the site depicted—was as close as many would get to an African safari.

By the time the Hall of North American Mammals opened to the public in 1943, initially with 10 dioramas, images of wildlands and wildlife were much more readily available. And yet, the visceral experience of standing just several feet away from a towering brown bear could hardly be replicated, outside an (ill-advised) encounter in the wild.

Alaska Brown Bear

While there are many ways to see beautiful images of North American wildlife, the Museum’s expert restoration of the hall’s dioramas has brought back color to fur, sheen to leaves, and crispness to grass, giving the scenes an immediacy and power unique to the medium.

“Here in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, you can walk the Great Plains of 150 years ago in company with a magnificent herd of bison, or share a narrow ledge with some white sheep high above the waters of an Alaskan fjord, or peer into the setting sun as a jaguar stands right next to you,” says Ross D. E. MacPhee, curator in the Department of Mammalogy, who served as supervising curator of the restoration.

Mountain Goat

“You cannot see a better show featuring this kind of wildlife art informed by up-to-the-minute science anywhere else on the planet.”

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.