Whenever I find myself in a new city, the first thing I do is scope out the museums. I was certainly not let down when I had the chance to visit San Francisco for the first time this past week. Art museums, science museums, galleries, natural history museums, zoos, aquariums- San Francisco had it all. While spending the day at a particularly amazing institution, the California Academy of Sciences, I discovered something that I had never seen before. It was a habitat diorama like most I’ve seen, except that this one came out of its box. It may not sound all that extraordinary to you, but you have to admit that it is rare that these displays break out of their strict, enclosed boundaries.
Not only did the diorama lack a floor-to-ceiling glass barrier, but it included elements like a tree and rocks that spilled out onto the museum floor. Even better, a taxidermied leopard lay stretched out on a high branch of the tree that arched over the visitors’ heads.
Seeing this lovely habitat diorama sparked my interest. There had to be other artists and designers out there who were attempting to bring the habitat diorama out of its box. With so many clear similarities to theatre sets, habitat dioramas are practically begging to have their fourth walls broken. So here is the list of artists I’ve uncovered who’ve attempt to do just this.
In his show titled “Habitat”, Alois Kronschlaeger successfully shatters the fourth wall of habitat dioramas with mesmerizing results.
Working with existing mid-20th century habitat dioramas in the Mammal Hall of the former Grand Rapids Public Museum, Alois puts a twist on these traditional displays. With minimal invasiveness, he adds and makes slight adjustments that drastically change the feel of the dioramas. For instance, a simple walkway was created that led visitors directly into the Beaver Diorama. While most habitat dioramas have glass walls or barriers that say “You are not welcome any closer, just look”, Alois’ version welcomes the visitor inside.
Another piece in the Habitat show that produces a similar effect is the deciduous forest diorama. In this case, it’s as if the front door to the diorama has been propped open. The door left ajar seems to beckon visitors to enter into another world.
While these examples of Alois’ work bring the habitat diorama out of its box in a very clear and physical way, the pieces from our next artists do so in a more conceptual manner.
In his photo series titled “Animal Logic”, Richard Barnes captures images of habitat dioramas in various states of construction, repair, and transportation. These jarring images make it clear that there is nothing remotely natural about these displays. By including construction equipment and other evidence of human presence, the fourth wall of the diorama is broken and we see the display for what it actually is.
What is so bizarre about Richard Barnes’ photos is that these are images that we should expect to see. Why is it so visually jarring to see a human repairing a scene that we know to be artificial and man-made? Does this feeling mean we are more convinced by the composed image than we let on to be?
In Barnes’ words, “The deconstructed apparatus of the diorama is made that much more poignant or hyper-real when actual living human beings occupy the spaces once solely reserved for the animals.”
Our next and last artist explores this same idea. How is our perception of the habitat diorama changed when humans are part of the composition?
Traer Scott is a Rhode Island based photographer who creates “single exposure images which merge the living and the dead.” By photographing natural history dioramas with just the right amount of light reflecting onto the glass, she is able to create composite images of museum visitors and the dioramas they are viewing. Her images produce a similarly strange effect by showing us humans in a domain where they seemingly don’t belong.
These final images that I’ll leave you with were most likely taken for the purpose of documenting the process of restoring habitat dioramas, but they create just as strange a visual as the pieces in the above artists’ portfolios. They pull you out of the illusion created by the contained diorama and show you the truth. And isn’t it the truth that we’re after when we visit a museum in the first place? It seems more important to give these skilled artists credit than ignore their work in the attempt to convince viewers that these scenes are authentic and at all “natural”.