This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the environmental-related work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars who identify as women, trans, and non-binary people.
An overwhelming experience of colour, miraculous shapes, and beauty meets you upon entering the Zoogeographic Hall at the Natural History Museum in Oslo. The windows are covered with marks from children’s hands as they stand mesmerised, observing the motionless animals behind glass.
In only a few minutes in the hall, I see animals from as far away as Australia, South America, northern Asia, and southern Africa. The dioramas were created as an opportunity for humans to appreciate up close the exoticism and colourfulness of flora and fauna from far-flung places—an aim that does not seem to have changed much, even though the world around us is not nearly as colourful anymore.
Dioramas revolutionised natural history museums’ wildlife exhibitions at the beginning of the twentieth century. Instead of exhibiting individual animals inside glass cabinets organised in taxonomic orders, the diorama showed the relationships between different animals. In the diorama, stuffed animals (often violently removed from their environments) were placed into constructed sceneries of their previous habitats. The museum reacquired appropriate specimens, as well as sketches and samples from the animals’ environment, to enable the ‘realistic’ construction of nature inside the diorama.1
Dioramas became a pedagogical tool for museums to educate the public about the interrelationships between animals and the animals’ relations to their surrounding environment. Besides this educational purpose, they also served a social and political function: to showcase, as Karen Wonders puts it, ‘which forms of organic life were native and rightfully belonged to a specific region or country.’2 Donna Haraway has famously criticised dioramas for representing a ‘teddy bear patriarchy,’ conveying human gender and racial boundaries onto the animal world.3
Dioramas remain popular among museum visitors; many of them have survived today, even though they typically offer a romanticised depiction of nature. The dioramas capture scenes from ‘nature’ in one moment of time so that the animals can quietly be observed inside the museum, but this nature is disconnected from any human presence. Reiss and Tunnicliffe observe, ‘for all that dioramas may attempt to bring the exotic into view, they frame us as observers of nature, voyeurs, above it, outside it, beyond it, not part of it.’4 Wildlife dioramas are natures without humans. The human impact on nature and the relationship between humans and nature are often excluded from the display.
One example from Oslo’s Zoogeographic Hall is the diorama of the Galápagos Islands. Inside the diorama marine iguanas, Darwin’s finches, Galápagos penguins, a giant tortoise, and a pelican, among others, are all compressed together into the foreground amid lava stones. These species would never appear in the same landscape at the same time outside the museum. The landscape behind them is a merging of volcanos, white sandy beaches, and the crystal-clear blue ocean—the perfect picture many tourists idealise when travelling to the Galápagos Islands. The truth is, when you do visit the Galápagos Islands, you quickly realise that its landscape is not a ‘pristine nature’ without human influence. It is a nature very much shaped by different human occupations. The nature portrayed in the museum display only exists today because of a human effort to conserve the ‘native’ species of the Galápagos islands.5
The emphasis on ‘native’ species preserved on the Galápagos islands overlooks how ecosystems evolve while the absence of humans in the diorama obscures our presence in these ecosystems. Further, not all human communities have the same kinds of impacts on ecosystems. Natures outside the museum are neither pristine nor static. They evolve, they change, and they currently disappear with a speed never before seen in human history as a direct consequence of human-inflicted damage to our planet. Humans are not separated from nature as observers standing on the opposite side of the glass looking into it.
Even if separation is how we have come to define ourselves in the western world, such an approach fails to recognise how Indigenous and native communities see themselves as intimately connected to and stewards of lands and companion species. Museums around the world house natural objects that connect to a variety of different people often because of colonial collecting practices. And museums have housed and displayed Indigenous artifacts, and even human remains, in harmful ways. How could dioramas show human impacts on nature, including the different ways colonists and Indigenous communities relate with and influence ecosystems?
With the different natures present in the Zoogeographic Hall in Oslo, many of which will face tremendous changes and biodiversity loss over the coming decades, dioramas offer good opportunities to display the many different relationships humans have and can have with the more-than-human world. The diorama of New Guinea is a good example. Instead of merely displaying the taxonomic order of birds of paradise, the diorama could include the biocultural history of the species and their decline. It could show examples of the coexistence of birds of paradise and Papuan people, the European exploitation of their knowledge to kill and trade the birds in the name of science, and how museum displays of exotic species fueled the millinery industry’s high demand for their plumage that consequently led to the loss of many birds of paradise.6
We often leave the museum under the illusion that nature exists far away from us in protected ‘glass boxes.’ This is probably because museum objects are classified as either belonging to the natural or human world. One way to address this would be to work into the wildlife dioramas the manifold relationships between humans and nature. This is not only necessary in the current environmental crisis, but it would also create a more enriching, varied, and stimulating museum experience.
See more photographs from the Zoogeographic Hall at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, on my website, photographed October 2019.
1. Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain, “The Drama of the Diorama, 1910-1935,” in Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science & Natural History in the Twentieth Century, 51-90 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
2. Karen Wonders, “Habitat Dioramas and the Issue of Nativeness,” Landscape Research 28, no. 1 (2003): 90.
3. Donna Haraway, “Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936,” Social Text 11 (1984): 20-64.
4. Michael J. Reiss and Sue Dale Tunnicliffe, “Dioramas as Depictions of Reality and Opportunities for Learning in Biology,” Curator 54, no. 4 (2001): 454.
5. Elizabeth Hennessy, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galapagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).
6. Rick De Vos, ”Extinction in a Distant Land: The Question of Elliot’s Bird of Paradise,” in Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, ed. Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew, 89-117 (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2017).
Feature image: Diorama of Lowland South America in the exhibition Zoogeographic Hall at the Natural History Museum in Oslo. Photo by author.
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