History of Dioramas
Claudia Kamcke and Rainer Hutterer
© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015
S. D. Tunnicliffe, A. Scheersoi (eds.), Natural History Dioramas,
R. Hutterer ()
Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig,
Adenauerallee 160, 53113 Bonn,Germany
Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum, Braunschweig,
Gaußstraße 22, 38106 Braunschweig, Germany
Dioramas in Natural History Museums are generally considered as the three-dimen-
sional depictions of animal-landscape sceneries that include real or artificial models
of animals in combination with background paintings and natural or artificial requi-
sites. However, the meaning of the term “diorama” changed through time and is still
not clearly defined and covers everything from miniature cardboard cases (such as
Japanese Tatetonka paper dioramas) to the highly artistic installations in the world’s
leading museums. Although Daguerre (1839) coined the name in 1822, the origin
of illusionary presentations of landscapes or natural scenes roots deeper in history
(Wonders 1993b) and may well have been invented independently more than once.
The development of dioramas and related techniques in Europe was certainly in-
fluenced by the idea of “picturesque beauty” (Gilpin 1792), or by the philosophical
idea of the “sublime and beautiful” (Burke 1757; Kant 1771), a new way of looking
at landscapes with the eye of an artist by extracting and arranging beautiful and
sublime components from the natural world and forming a piece of wonder.
Here we review the various technical innovations which led to the habitat diora-
mas which can be seen in many natural history museum of the world.
8 C. Kamcke and R. Hutterer
2 Early Panoramas
At the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century a new form of display, the
panorama, was developed by a combination of art and technology in order to
achieve a maximum effect of the illusionistic representation of landscapes. The
term panorama was derived from the Greek “pan = everything” and “hórama =
view”, meaning “to see everything”. Panoramas aimed to depict scenes or objects
as accurately as possible by an application of optical principles such as tilted planes,
curved painted backgrounds and modified scales of objects to reinforce the illusion
through false perspective of a realistic view of a large scene in a compact space
(Buddemeyer 1970). They depicted objects found in natural surroundings in the
form of circular paintings or lengthy images which could be looked at from one cen-
tral point. The Scotsman Robert Barker (1739–1806) and the German Johann Adam
Breysig (1766–1831), are both considered as the inventors of the panorama. Barker
painted a view of Edinburgh as the first panorama in 1787. He had this procedure
patented as “panorama”. The breakthrough was an unusually large circular painting
of London which was exhibited in a rotunda of 30 m in diameter, especially built for
that purpose and completed in 1793. The motif on display was not a city view but
the Russian fleet at Spithead, the main roadstead of the British fleet, which could
be viewed from the deck of a frigate built in the middle of the rotunda. The success
with the public was enormous. Twice a year the panoramic image was replaced by
a new one, in order to keep the flow of visitors constant. Old paintings were after-
wards sent to other cities and re-used.
In 1800 the cities of Paris and Berlin gained independence from London and
opened their own panoramas. Paris did this under license, while, in Berlin, old and
independently developed blueprints were used. Soon there were panoramas on dis-
play in all major cities of Europe. Particularly panoramas of battles were popular,
but also historical or religious themes, often combined with interesting cityscapes
The prosperity of the panoramas led to developments with similar names. Due to
the abundance of these “-oramas” and their complex history (reviewed by Oetter-
man 1980) we mention just a few examples.
Neorama: Most closely related to the panorama. On a circular painting the inte-
rior of a building was depicted including people and changing illumination. Devel-
oped by the Frenchman Pierre Alaux (1783–1858), who exhibited the first one in
Paris in 1827, which showed the interior of St. Peter’s in Rome. One to two years
later an interior view of Westminster Abbey in London followed which however
was not successful, probably due to a lack of artistic skills of Alaux, and no more
paintings followed (Oettermann 1980).
Myriorama: A kind of strip panorama. It is a laying game consisting of a painted
landscape with an infinite horizon line cut into compatible playing cards. Each mar-
gin suits to another one so that the individual pieces of the scenery can be combined
to form various landscapes. It was invented in 1802 by Jean-Pierre Brès (1760–
1834) in Paris and subsequently improved by John Heaviside Clark (1771–1863) in
92 History of Dioramas
London. Though originally intended to compete with the panorama at a large scale,
it turned out to be more profitable when scaled down and marketed as children’s
entertainment through the book trade (Oettermann 1980). As a laying game the
myriorama has survived until today.
Cosmorama: Also called room panorama, cosmoramas were a kind of small pan-
oramas. Usually they measured 6 × 1.20 m, showing mostly topographical views
on paper painted in watercolors. They were constructed in a semicircle, built into a
box and viewed through optical glasses to let them appear life-sized and with more
plasticity and spatial depth. Six to eight glasses of up to 12 cm in diameter were
installed in the front wall of the box, which was built at a distance of 1 m from
picture plane. Cosmoramas were mostly illuminated by daylight and allowed more
varied performances. They soon attained equal footing with the exhibition of large
panoramas and became more and more popular, especially in the first half of the
nineteenth century (Oettermann 1980).
Georama: A gigantic hollow globe construction with continents, oceans, riv-
ers, mountains etc. displayed on its inner surface, so that the public could wander
around within the globe and look at the side-inverted displays. The first georama by
Mr. Delangard (life data unknown) opened in 1826 in Paris. However, it was really
successful only after the expansion and development by James Wyld (1812–1887)
in London. Wyld’s Great Globe was exhibited there from 1851 to 1862. The build-
ing consisted of a huge hollow sphere of about 12.2 m diameter and the inside was
provided with four stacked galleries for the visitors. On its inside the surface of the
earth was formed true to scale with a three-fold super-elevation (Oettermann 1980).
Length panorama (moving panorama): The most consequential variation of the
panorama was probably the length panorama. Here the panoramic view of 360° was
replaced by the depiction of landscapes on long canvas, causing an illusion as one
would look out of a window of a train or from the deck of a ship. The canvas was
wound up from one cylinder to another. Often the canvas length was up to 10 m, on
which an equivalent of 30 km or more of landscape were depicted. The date when
the moving panorama first arose can not be determined with certainty. Since the
1820s this kind of exhibition enjoyed more and more popularity, especially in Eng-
lish speaking countries. Moving panoramas were an essential part of stage equip-
ment in the drama theatre of the nineteenth century (Oettermann 1980).
Pleorama: A kind of moving double length panorama. Architect Carl Ferdinand
Langhans (1781–1869) and writer and artist August Kopisch (1799–1853) opened
the first one in Breslau in 1831. In this exhibition the audience sat in a boat floating
in a pool of water between two large, parallel-running length panoramas, which,
while passing, enhanced the illusion of a boat trip in the Bay of Naples. Probably
due to its complicated equipment and the great technical effort, the pleorama found
no subsequent imitators (Oettermann 1980).
Nowadays all these names are no longer in use and only the word “diorama”
survived. However, new digital techniques combined with robotic cameras just led
to a new and exiting form of panorama, the “GigaPan” (http//www.gigapan.com).
10 C. Kamcke and R. Hutterer
3 Dioramas in the Original Sense
The diorama was originally focused on the representation of movements, because
their absence in panoramas was felt as a deficiency. The new method was introduced
to the Parisian public in 1822 by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1789–1851) and
Charles-Marie Bouton (1781–1853). Daguerre was a stage painter specialised in
lighting effects and very famous for his sunrises and sunsets, while later on he
played an important role in the development of photography.
The first dioramas were 22 × 14 m large paintings which were painted opaque
or translucent on transparent canvas. The light came from the front or back of the
canvas and was regulated by different colored apertures—therefore, the patented
name diorama = translucent image. The audience was sitting in a dark room. The
lighting effects could range from moonlight to sunlight with wafts of mist, moving
clouds, sparkling waterfalls, oncoming and unleashing thunderstorms etc. During
the presentations, there was rarely a moment in which nothing moved or altered.
The lights merged continuously, and with the changing light intensity the colours
also changed, regulated by the different apertures. That kind of motion in a picture
was the overwhelming novelty at that time (Verwiebe 1997). The diorama quick-
ly spread from Paris to the capitals of Europe. Daguerre kept his special painting
techniques of translucent images as a secret, so all other dioramas were dependent
on the paintings of Daguerre and Bouton. After being shown in Paris, the dioramas
went on tour.
In a time of economic downturn new attractions had to be found. Bouton had
emmigrated to London, and, in 1832, Daguerre presented a view of the valley of
Chamonix with the Mont Blanc in the background and a complete Swiss chalet with
all the associated devices in front. Real trees, scattered devices and a live goat feed-
ing on hay from a manger completed the scenery. During the presentation alphorns
resounded and a choir sang Swiss folk songs. Daguerre painted over the real objects
to make them even more attuned to the image, whereby the boundary between re-
ality and illusion actually disappeared in the eyes of the observer. This manner of
representation, however, apparently did not meet the taste of the paying public suffi-
ciently so that Daguerre largely renounced on real objects afterwards and developed
his diorama to a double effect diorama. A picture was painted on the front of the
especially prepared canvas, and another variant of the same motif, usually the night
effect, was painted on the back. This resulted in a presentation of several images on
one single surface by the use of different levels of brightness such as dawn, bright
noon and dusk, passing even into full moonlight scenery.
Daguerre succeeded best in 1834 with the representation of a midnight mass in
the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mond, which he could put on display for three years
continuously. At the beginning the Church was in full daylight, which decreased
slowly and finally gave way to the night. As the light faded outside, more and more
candles lit up in the Church and the benches were filled with worshippers, with the
sounding of an organ as a highlight. A new quality of representation was achieved.
112 History of Dioramas
With Daguerre’s diorama destroyed by a fire in 1839, the history of his inven-
tion ended. Attempts of revival brought no significant innovations. The panorama,
however, experienced a new boom between 1880 and 1900. The panorama “Battle
of Sedan” in Berlin was opened in 1883 in the presence of the emperor. Here, the
precise documentation of a historical moment was more important than the cre-
ation of an illusion. Reminiscence and envision of a glorious historical moment
was the main interest. The panorama was supplemented by three dioramas, which
were also in the service of the documentation, but had lost the clever achievements
of Daguerre, like changing lighting effects. Only a static top light and the darkened
auditorium remained (Oettermann 1980).
4 Precursors of Habitat Dioramas in Natural History
The ideas and techniques of the dioramas were soon adopted by the Natural History
Museums of Europe and North America. The terminology for diorama-like objects
or installations is still inconsistent, both in the literature and in public use. In the
following we concentrate on the development of dioramas in Natural History Mu-
seums because this is where they prospered until today.
4.1 Artificial Groups
Artificial or mixed groups show an unnatural large number and diversity of individ-
uals and species in a particular landscape. All animals may occur in this landscape
without biological context, the fox peacefully next to a rabbit. Cabinets of curiosi-
ties were already common in the Renaissance. Shells, fossils, skulls and stuffed or
fluid-preserved animals were arranged in cases following no obvious order. Won-
ders (2003b, p. 425) figured an example from a Swedish natural history cabinet of
1804, where 169 stuffed birds from around the world were arranged, apparently by
taxon group, in a huge wall case. Such showcases with artificial groups persisted
in museums until recently. The old galleries of the National Museum of Natural
History in Paris, first opened in 1889, were famous examples of the same principle
(Berenger and Butor 1994). A further development was the installation of a painted
background, and sometimes terrace-like or pyramid-like structures in the cabinets
which allowed arranging many large and smaller animals in a given space. Some
of the early “dioramas” by G. von Koch in the Darmstadt Museum (Koch 1910)
are of this type, and were found also in the Natural History Museum in Hamburg
(Köstering 2003, Fig. 32) and many others.
12 C. Kamcke and R. Hutterer
4.2 Geographical Groups
A way of displaying animals or plants from a specific geographical region (Africa,
Asia, etc.), or from a specific environment (tundra, desert, etc.) were the geographi-
cal groups. Background painting and foreground requisites were not required but
often added, but no attempts were made to create an illusion of reality. Examples of
this type of presentation were (or are) found in the museums of Darmstadt (Feustel
1968), Tervuren, and many others. Their purpose was more education than illusion.
Voss and Sarkars (2003) argued that the early geographical groups performed in
Darmstadt by G. von Koch were stimulated by the book “Geographical Distribu-
tion of Animals” of Wallace (1876), and that his book was influential to the further
development of dioramas.
4.3 Biological Groups
Biological groups are often called dioramas, but they lack the curved painted back-
ground and the illusion of space, and often also any protection by cases and glass.
They showed a piece of nature with a natural combination of habitat, plants, and
animals, as if taken from the wild. The principle was already shown by Albrecht
Dürer in his famous water colour, “Das große Rasenstück“ (large greensward) of
1503, in which he painted a small piece of meadow with all its details. Biological
groups can be “little landscapes” (Insely 2008) but also large open installations,
such as the (lost) group “Wolves and moose” by August Sander of 1901 (Köstering
2003, Fig. 30), the group “Animal life in the Arctic” of 1907 in the Berlin Museum
(Kretschmann 2006, p. 278), or the new African savanna of 2003 in the Museum
Koenig, Bonn. A critical condition is that these groups reflect the biology and ecol-
ogy of the species shown (e.g., a flock of birds feeding on berries; a pack of wolves
chasing a moose; a family of foxes in front of the burrow), and not just the phantasy
of the taxidermist.
A famous example of biological groups are the bird groups of Bengt Berg
(1885–1967) in Bonn, a Swedish preparator and writer who worked for the Museum
Koenig from 1909 to 1913 (Berg 1926; Bechtle 1978). For his biological groups
he collected substrate, plants, rocks, birds and their nest and eggs from the origi-
nal nest site, mostly in Scandinavia, and combined everything in Bonn into a few
square meters to show the bird’s habitat. These bird groups were originally shown
in daylight in separate show cases which could be examined from all sides. Around
1960 they were moved into a new gallery with dimmed light, furnished with curved
painted backgrounds and artificial illumination, and thus turned into real habitat
dioramas. In 2000, these were dismantled during a renovation of the building; some
were renovated and transferred into new showcases, and thus were made biological
Small and large biological groups are common in museums around the world
and have a long tradition, particularly in the British Islands (Morris 2003, 2010),
132 History of Dioramas
Germany (Köstering 2003), Eastern Europe (Hutterer and Elzen 2007), and North
America (Quinn 2006) Fig. 2.1 shows an early example made in 1793, but the poet
Johann Wolfgang Goethe kept an even older case (c. 1776) in his collection, a king-
fisher in a glass-covered box amidst a naturalistic foreground and a painted back-
ground (figured in Wonders 1993b).
5 Habitat Dioramas
Habitat dioramas are the result of a development of fine biological groups into
“windows on nature”, as Quinn (2006) called them. Well-made habitat dioramas
are perfect combinations of the “sublime and beautiful” with scientific accuracy,
art, and technology. Necessary requisites of habitat dioramas are a domed back wall
with naturalistic background painting and effective illumination, perfectly merging
into the foreground and its real components like animals, plants, rocks, water, and
so forth. A clever use of perspective and foreshortening in the background paint-
ing increases the impression of a large space or open landscape. The diorama can
be viewed from one side through a large “window”. The viewer rests either in a
dark area (for example, Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum in Braunschweig,
Fig. 2.3), or in a bright hall (American Museum of Natural History, New York).
Some dioramas are window dioramas where the viewer looks over an opaque bar-
rier, higher than floor level, into the diorama, as in the new backyard diorama at the
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. There are also waist-high window
dioramas, exemplified by some of the dioramas in the Museum für Naturkunde,
Berlin, which reduce the breadth of the depicted scene in order to focus on a limited
Fig. 2.1 Example of an early bird case dating from 1793 (Museum Koenig, Bonn), composed of a
stuffed Turdus pilaris, real plants, and artificial leaves and flowers. (Photo R. Hutterer)
14 C. Kamcke and R. Hutterer
number of specimens and their immediate environment. After Reiss and Tunnicliffe
(2011) dioramas can also be classified according to their mode of representation of
the specimens, which can be two- or three-dimensional and, in the case of animals,
static or moving. Animatronics are examples of three-dimensional specimens with
the capacity for movement, while two-dimensional versions of the specimens are
shown through technologies such as video projection (e.g. the elephants walking on
the background of the Somali arid zone diorama in the recently renovated African
Hall of the California Academy of Sciences), or even holograms.
A habitat diorama usually has a message, either directly or indirectly. One gen-
eral message is to provoke wonder and emotion about nature, sometimes even fear
(Quinn 2006). A further (unspoken) message is to increase awareness about nature
conservation. Particularly in the United States specific dioramas have had an impor-
tant impact on decisions about the creation of nature reserves. The Pelican Island
diorama in the American Museum of Natural History, when first displayed in 1902,
assisted in the creation of the first Federal bird reserve in 1903 (Quinn 2006).
Karen Wonders laid the foundation to a scientific study of habitat dioramas and
discussed their possible origin and evolution (Wonders 1993a, b, c, 2003). She ar-
gued that the long history of bird taxonomy (Schulze-Hagen et al. 2003) has driven
the development of the habitat diorama, as only the invention of new techniques
for the permanent preservation of birds allowed a further development of more
sophisticated displays. Bird relief pictures fabricated in Silesia (today in Poland) in
the early nineteenth century seem to support this view, as they met all criteria for a
habitat diorama and thus represented an important step in the development of early
bird taxidermy to the highly sophisticated art of habitat dioramas in the twentieth
century (Hutterer and Elzen 2007). In the same region small city dioramas had a
long tradition (Glanz 2005). Also bird cases with background painting and some-
times furnished with artificial or natural requisites (Hevers 2008; Morris 2010) can
be regarded as an early form of habitat diorama.
The first European museums which adopted a naturalistic approach to zoologi-
cal exhibits were the so-called biological museums in Sweden. In these privately
founded museums animals were integrated into visual representations. Biological
museums were invented by Gustaf Kolthoff (1845–1913), a Swedish hunter, natu-
ralist and taxidermist. He developed an exhibition concept that associated public
education with entertainment by illusion. According to Kolthoff, the visitor had
the complete picture in front of him in a biological museum, and could therefore
see immediately what words can not describe. His habitat dioramas were mixed
groups. Three largely preserved original dioramas by Gustaf Kolthoff and his son
152 History of Dioramas
Kjell in Turku were called “In the outer archipelago”, “In the inner archipelago”
and “Mountain landscape of Lapland”, each of them depicted numerous species of
animals (Puhakka et al. 1996) (Fig. 2.2).
The first private biological museums, which no longer exist today, were built
by Kolthoff in Källeviken (1875), Kalmar (1882) and Uppsala (1889). Some of his
work has outlasted until today, for example the biological museums in Stockholm
(1893), Abo, the Finnish city of Turku (1907), Uppsala (1910) and Södertälje (1913).
Kolthoff’s exhibition concept was improved by Olof Gylling (1870–1929), who
also was a naturalist and taxidermist. His dioramas can still be seen in Gothenburg.
Only a few dioramas existed in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth Cen-
tury. They presented a kind of supplementary addition to the exhibitions and were
not seen as a fundamental alternative of the traditional way of making exhibitions.
Following Darmstadt in 1904, some other European museums built habitat diora-
mas: Paris 1906, Berlin 1907, Frankfurt 1907 (Becker 1997), Kent 1908, Leipzig
1908 (Becker 2004), Bucarest 1908 (Pinna 2011), Amsterdam 1926, and Bonn
1912–1933 (Bechtle 1978). More recent examples are known from Milan (Alessan-
drello et al. 2011) and Helsinki (Granqvist 2012), but a full inventory of dioramas
in European museums has not yet been made.
Hunting played a pivotal role in the development of taxidermy techniques and
the use of habitat dioramas. This was obviously caused by the personal interests
of private museum founders—a clear parallel to the Swedish model. Major Percy
Fig. 2.2 Detail of the diorama “In the outer archipelago” in the Biological Museum in Turku,
Finland, which was set up by Gustav Kolthoff and his son Kjell until 1907. It belongs to the first
series of dioramas in Europe, developed by Kolthoff in Sweden. (Photo J. Hevers)
16 C. Kamcke and R. Hutterer
Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton (1866–1940) in England, Louis-Philippe-Robert,
Duke of Orléans (1869–1926), in Paris and Alexander Koenig (1858–1940) in Bonn
presented the results of their game hunting in this way. The hunter and taxidermist
Rowland Ward (1848–1912) was specialized in the mounting of big game trophies
collected in Africa by the European nobility. He established a business in London
in 1872 that became the largest and most famous taxidermy firm in the world. The
majority of the trophies of Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton or of Louis-
Philippe-Robert, Duke of Orléans were prepared and mounted by Rowland Ward in
his taxidermic studio in London. Ward was always up-to-date on the latest display
methods and played an important role in the development of habitat dioramas in
Europe, although he was more interested in displaying an entertaining spetacle than
in objective re-creation of nature. Many of the species he mounted were purchased
by the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum, London). Ward even
established a fund in his name at the museum for purchase of specimens (Wonders
1993a). From 1951 to 1960, the remaining funds were used to create the Rowland
Ward pavillion, which consisted of three dioramas of African mammals, dismantled
in 2004 (Morris 2010; Reiss and Tunnicliffe 2011).
The trend towards big game dioramas was limited in continental Europe. An
exception was the museum of Bern in Switzerland. The Natural History Museum
had 228 dioramas with a total of 882 specimens (Huber 1982), of which 41 showed
African animals. The dioramas were created between 1934 and 1936. Many mam-
mals shown in these dioramas originated from a hunting expedition by Bernhard
von Wattenwyl (1877–1924) in 1923/1924. He shot the animals for the museum
Fig. 2.3 Habitat diorama from 1977 showing a male and female roe deer in summer in a grain-
field at the foot of the Elm hills, Germany. The reaped crop strip draws the eye into the distance
and nicely merges with the painted background. (Photo Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum,
172 History of Dioramas
and donated them (Bundi 1998). Von Wattenwyl knew the biological museums in
Sweden, and they were certainly a role model for him when he submitted this offer
to the museum of his home town in 1922.
6.2 North America
In the United States of America the development of habitat dioramas went a differ-
ent way. While the European natural history museums primarily fulfilled a scientific
function, the main goal of the American museums was public education. Private
foundations, fundraising and large donations for the improvement of museums were
common. This resulted in a competition among museums for the most spectacular
exhibitions with the highest attraction to the public, thus impressing even sponsors.
The actual development towards dioramas began with the so-called group meth-
od. It corresponded largely to the biological groups in Germany. Interacting animals
of different ages and sexes were combined into natural groups. They were shown
in a portion of their natural habitat and placed in a glass case visible to the visitors
from all four sides. Trailblazers were depictions of birds at nest. After exhibitions
during the first Annual Meeting of the Society of American Taxidermists in Roches-
ter and inspired by biological groups of birds in London in 1887, the first 18 groups
of birds were built at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. After a
few years over 70 bird groups were created (Hevers 2003).
To apply the group method to large mammals, much larger exhibition areas were
needed. It started with William T. Hornaday (1854–1937), chief taxidermist at the
National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. At that time, the Ameri-
can bison or buffalo was already considered extinct, and despite its importance for
America, no collection had any specimen. When the news emerged that few small
groups of buffalos might have survived in the West, Hornaday was sent on a collect-
ing expedition. He had the order to bring home 80–100 buffalos (skins, skeletons,
skulls). In the second attempt 1886 Hornaday succeeded to hunt down 25 animals,
including the most powerful bull that was ever recorded. This is considered the last
successful buffalo hunt in the U.S.!
For a group Hornaday selected six animals from small calf to trophy bull and
in 1888 he presented the mounted specimens in a glass/mahogany display case of
5 × 4 × 3 m size. The success was enormous, especially because of the buffalo being
such a symbolic animal for America. Soon the President of the American Museum
of Natural History in New York wanted to have a group of buffalos, too. However,
a hunting expedition failed, and they had to buy expensive skins from the Washing-
ton museum. Now it was possible to build the largest bison group on a floor space
of 6 × 10 × 4 m. It was finished in 1891, considered a masterpiece of taxidermy and
exhibited in a prominent place for many years.
While developing true habitat dioramas, the group method was supplemented by
a painted background, thereby giving a more vivid impression of the entire habitat.
This required the foreground of the group merging imperceptibly into the painted
18 C. Kamcke and R. Hutterer
background. The back wall was bent and the diorama was visible now only from
the front. Like so often, birds were ahead of the mammals. Between 1898 and 1909
about 34 bird groups were set up as true habitat dioramas in the Hall of North Amer-
ican Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, which it opened in 1902.
Carl Akeley (1864–1926), famous taxidermist, hunter and sculptor, was an in-
ventive pioneer of the habitat concept. His muskrat group of 1889 is regarded as one
of the first true habitat dioramas. It depicts muskrats in a re-created marsh against
a mural of a wetland. He constructed it while working at the Milwaukee Public
Museum where it is still on display today (Quinn 2006). From 1896–1909 Akeley
worked as chief taxidermist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago
(Metzler and Carter 2008). There he constructed the remarkable habitat dioramas
“Four Seasons”, in which he depicted the development of a family of white-tailed
deer during the year. They were mounted in 1902, being the first true habitat diora-
mas with large mammals in a museum.
Akeley was also the inventor of a preparation method to attain a very realistic
and lifelike appearance of large animals. He sculpted a life-size model of the ani-
mal’s skinned body with all the necessary details like muscles, wrinkles and veins.
By moulding this model he got a hollow cast, on which the tanned skin was ar-
ranged. This method is still one of the two standard methods in taxidermy.
From 1909 to his death in 1926 Akeley worked at the American Museum of
Natural History in New York City. There he conducted the production of a grand
gallery dedicated to African wildlife. The Akeley Hall of African Mammals created
a sensation when opened in 1936, ten years after his death. The opening marked the
birth of the golden age of the diorama (Quinn 2006). It is his impressive memorial.
Twenty-eight dioramas in this hall framed a central group of eight African elephants.
The dioramas presented African big game in typical family groups. Each diorama
contained as many animals as scientifically acceptable. A large corner diorama of
the equatorial Tana River displayed impalas, monkeys, a crocodile, turtles, a num-
ber of birds and several hippos on a sand bank. The background paintings were an
important element. In their entirety they should show a condensed impression of the
beauty of Africa from the East coast to the West coast and from the Mediterranean
Sea to the Table Mountains in Cape Town. They also show the natives living in re-
lationship to the animals. The impressive central herd of African elephants included
among others an elephant cow, which President Roosevelt had shot on a hunting
with Akeley in Kenya in 1909, a calf hunted by his son Kermit, and two bulls, which
Akeley had shot himself. Akeley wanted to show the intelligence of this species for
which he had the utmost respect. Akeley made several expeditions to Africa for the
purpose of hunting animals and studying their habitats.
The extension of the African Hall began shortly after the outbreak of World War
I, was then interrupted and resumed in 1921. Akeley suddenly died on an African
expedition in 1926. The completion of the dioramas followed Akeley’s original
plans. For the foreground of the gorilla diorama 75,000 artificial leaves and flow-
ers were produced. The painting was one of the most impressive and showed the
area in which Akeley had been buried—thus it received a special significance in
remembrance of him.
192 History of Dioramas
The African Hall exerted such an astonishing fascination at that time and more
African-halls were built in Los Angeles (1928), Chicago (1932; Metzler and Carter
2008), Minnesota (1911–1960; Luce et al. 1980; Nelson 2012), San Francisco
(1934), Philadelphia (1936), or Yale (Anderson 2012). In the American Museum
of Natural History the Hall had a considerable influence on the exhibition policy.
There was even a hall of the birds of the world and a hall for South Asian mammals
set up. In 1929, five habitat halls were completed or under construction, including
one for birds of the oceans. Two-thirds of the museum expenditure went to fund
exhibitions. This increasingly deepened rifts between the scientific staff and the
public relations department, culminating in the accusation that the habitat dioramas
were without any intellectual content.
Nevertheless, a Hall for North American Mammals was rebuilt and opened in
1942. The impressive nature of North America was shown in gorgeous dioramas.
No didactic information interrupted the grandiose optical effect of the hall. Tables,
maps and graphs on distribution, evolution, vegetation, climate, and topography of
the various scenes were limited in size so that they did not distract from the diora-
Nowadays, habitat dioramas are found in most Natural History Museums of the
world (Quinn 2006; Hevers 2008). Examples are the Shanghai Museum of Science
and Technology, the dioramas in the National Museum Bloemfontein, South Africa,
in the Museum Satwa in Batu, East Java, Indonesia, or in the Museums of Welling-
ton, New Zealand, and Melbourne, Australia (Walliss 2011).
The history of the diorama was a gradual process over a few centuries, from the cu-
riosity cabinets to the highly sophisticated habitat dioramas of our times. Important
steps were the intellectual discovery of the beauty of nature and of landscapes, the
technical innovations of Daguerre and others about optical illusions, the improve-
ment of bird and large mammal taxidermy, and the artistic skills of background
painters. The concept of the habitat diorama was developed only at the end of the
nineteenth century in Europe and North America and at that time also considered
aspects of nature conservation, which culminated in the superb examples of habitat
dioramas of the major North American museums.
Acknowledgements We are grateful to Jürgen Hevers for his input as well as to Gustav Peters,
Gael Summer, Ralf Kosma and Michaela Forthuber for linguistic advice.
20 C. Kamcke and R. Hutterer
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Claudia Kamcke is a museum curator and head of the invertebrate department at the Staatli-
ches Naturhistorisches Museum in Braunschweig, Germany. She is also collection manager of the
museum and responsible for a part of the exihibitons. In the context of the redesign of the perma-
nent exhibitions of the museum she has carefully researched on the history of the dioramas of this
house, but apart from this also on the history of the dioramas in general.
Dr. Rainer Hutterer worked as a museum curator and head of the vertebrate department at the
Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany, until 2014. His main
research is on systematics and evolution of mammals with emphasis on small mammals of Africa.
He has also participated in archaeological projects and studied animal remains. History of science
is another field of interest; he has published numerous articles on the history of the Museum Koe-
nig, including dioramas, and on the history of the German Society of Mammalogists.