Dioramas in Context

What is the role of crafted objects in the exchange of scientific knowledge? How might we describe the authority of scientific displays without obscuring their culturally-specific artistic origins? How can natural history museums make the histories of objects in their collection visible to viewers? Can digital infrastructures offer new solutions? Colleen O'Reilly (PhD student, Department of the History of Art and Architecture) and Aisling Quigley (PhD student, School of Information Sciences), will track the process of creating an online exhibition on this webpage. The project explores the preceding questions in relation to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Botany Hall, bringing it into contact with objects from other institutions, and positioning it as a focal point for interdisciplinary expert knowledge.

Dioramas in Context

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    Midterm Blog Post- Update on Progress

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2016

    After reading only a mere summary of a few possible academic internship opportunities, I really had no idea what to expect when I chose to join an internship that involved working on a digital exhibition of Botany Hall in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I had no idea what my role in this project would be, nor how large of a project this digital exhibition would be. When I first met with PhD candidate, Colleen O’Reilly, one of the two students in charge of creating the idea for the exhibition and curating it through each stage of the process, I was a little overwhelmed when she explained my role in the project. I was told that I could basically contribute any final project to the digital exhibition that I saw suitable after visiting and extensively researching Botany Hall – a site in the museum that mysteriously seems to have little obvious and accessible information available about it to the public. I was generally confused about what Botany Hall was, considering I knew it had been years since I visited the Carnegie Natural History Museum. She explained that the hall contained dioramas of various biomes around the United States.

    After meeting with Colleen and being introduced to the project, I examined Botany Hall on my own using a careful and precise art historical lens and the first thing that really stood out to me was the oddity of the idealistically painted backgrounds in the dioramas. They were made to be illusionistic and to make the three-dimensional objects in the foreground appear to extend into the background painting, giving an overall trompe-l’oeil effect. It seemed so odd that something so subjective like art could be used as an educational tool for something accredited with being so objective like science. At this point I knew my contribution to the digital exhibition would revolve around researching the background paintings and I ultimately decided that I could best contribute to the digital exhibition on the hall through producing an essay and wall text with images.

    Probably the biggest problem that I have had is one that might seem like a positive at first, but I have had the bittersweet problem of finding so much information, whether primary or secondary, to sift through it to ultimately choose what information is relevant. To my advantage in research, individuals that worked on this project previously had digitized a lot of primary sources that were at my disposal, so accessing that information was not as much of a struggle. The only aspect that therefore overwhelmed me were the many angles to pursue in looking at Botany Hall which made it hard to form just one cohesive argument. That one narrowed down argument is something that I am still struggling to define and is always being polished and refined in my process towards materializing my research as a final product.

    A lot of my time has been spent contacting other archives or individuals that would be primary sources regarding Botany Hall as well as researching data bases for secondary sources that hold relevance. The biggest problem I have faced that is both a pro and a con is the large amount of autonomy that I have in setting my own work schedule, research topic, and final product that contributes to the larger picture of a digital exhibition on Botany Hall. At this point in the semester, I have done a lot of research and am now just waiting to meet with other individuals and finalize my ideas for my contributions. For the time being, my research questions are whether art can be considered a legitimate platform for conveying scientific knowledge, and what scientific knowledge can be learned from 2D art paintings in this specific style versus other styles, mediums and media such a 3D crafted objects. I hope to make this a more precise and polished statement as I continue my process.

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    Dioramas at the Field Museum

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    As we began researching Botany Hall and its role in the museum in earnest, I learned that the Field Museum in Chicago is making a new diorama, their first new one in 60 years! It will house 19th century taxidermy hyenas. On their website you can hear from the artists about their art-science process to make the diorama represent a specific moment in time. It is very interesting to watch the museum jump into this historic style of display and think about how it works for modern audiences. For example, it will be accompanied by an interactive screen. 

    The Field Museum's Youtube channel, The Brain Scoop, also has a bunch of great videos about the history of their dioramas and famed taxidermist Carl Akeley

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    From the archives: The Arizona Desert Group

     

    Assembling a Project

    PhD Student in the School of Computing and Information

    Over the coming months, Colleen O'Reilly and I (and other guest bloggers) will be posting updates about our project, Dioramas in Context: using digital display to unveil the cultural history and artistic development of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Botany Hall. Through these posts, we hope to document our research process, including the rewards and challenges of interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration. A more thorough introduction to our project is forthcoming, but in the meantime, please enjoy a couple of photos from the Botany Hall archives at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  

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  • Botany Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History
     

    The Botanical Dioramas of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Botany Hall is situated in a corner of the second floor of the CMNH, accessible through the North American Wildlife section. Inside, seven window dioramas depict seven different biomes of the United States. In each, a richly painted curved wall supports a highly detailed three-dimensional scene, in which every individual leaf, stem, insect wing, and bit of moss is hand crafted and botanically accurate. 

    The complexity of these dioramas and the wonder they were meant to inspire is somewhat lost on many of the people who enter the hall I think.  If one happens to read the signage indicating the number of human hours required to create these, and how much information is embedded in every single detail, some sense of the uniqueness and specificity of these objects sinks in.  However, museum audiences are accustomed now to flashy screens that move when they touch them, to the backlit, the monumental and the loud.  The impressiveness of these dioramas takes a little longer to see than much of what modern museums do.

    I don’t think this would have been so for audiences when they were made.  Otto and Hanne Von Feuhrer created the first five dioramas in the 1920s and 30s.  Otto was primarily responsible for the backgrounds and overall design, and Hanne made the individual specimens.  Their work was based on field expeditions to collect specimens, which either were models for flowers and plants in wax and paper, or were preserved themselves as part of the display. Otto Jennings, Curator of Botany, conceived a broad vision for a hall that as a whole showed how different levels of heat and moisture lead to distinct environments.  Each diorama, or “group,” as they were more often called, is conceived as a unified whole, in which all parts work together, both aesthetically and as a natural environment. In the 1960s the Von Fuehrers were assisted by Elizabeth Niedringhaus to create a sixth diorama, and Neidringhaus then took over and worked with Curator of Botany Dorothy Pearth to craft two more, with the help of a faster techniques of her own development and a team of volunteers.  Pearth and Niedringhaus strove to continue to complete Jennings' vision, committing themselves to his interest in helping Pittsburgh viewers to understand how these plants relate to them and their own lives.

    The dioramas are examples of a specific form of art and museum display of a past era.  The backgrounds are carefully extended past the edges of the windows, past the peripheral vision allowed to viewer by the diorama frame.  Special attention is paid to the edges where the two-dimensional meets the three-dimensional, and certain visual devices are employed to make a seamless transition and enhance illusion, such as strategically placed plants or rocks, play with light and shadow, and repetition of specific specimens. Every single item, color, and texture, as well as a landscape background, is allowed in only for its precise accuracy as to what would be found in nature, in many cases what was actually found in nature by the artists, for its contribution to a “complete” and representative picture of that particular biome, as well as for its ability to contribute to a harmonious aesthetic whole. The individual crafted plants are part of a tradition of botanical drawing and glass sculpture that goes back to the 19th century. The achieved effect speaks to a yearning for a version of nature that can be harnessed and dominated by human eyes and hands.

    While the Von Feuhrers are mentioned on an explanatory panel, Niedringhaus’s authorship is invisible, as are Jennings, Pearth, Clifford Morrow who was exhibition designer in the 60s and 70s, and numerous others who assisted in these projects.  The hall’s construction has been largely supported over the years by local and state garden clubs, and it should be noted the key ways in which this has been a women’s space, both in the sense of the empowerment of women as leaders and participants in scientific institutions, and in the sense of their sequestering to subjects deemed appropriately feminine.

    A group of us from the History of Art and Architecture department visited Botany Hall in March, and had a productive discussion about approaching these objects from an art historical or museum studies point of view.  It was clear that many of the issues and discourses art historians care about – the politics of display, representation as pathway to knowledge, the lives and agencies of objects – could be brought to bear really fruitfully on Botany Hall.

    Curator of Botany Cynthia Morton and Director of Exhibition Experience Becca Shreckengast are committed to preserving Botany Hall and finding ways for modern audiences to appreciate the amount of information that is contained within them and the ways in which this specific type of display contributes to enjoyable learning.  My interest is unearthing the archival story of how they were created and how they were expected to operate in terms of visual knowledge. As usual with scientific display and imagery, I think an art historical approach could bring some much needed elucidation as to what is going on.  What are the aspects of this history that are invisible, and need to be filled out? How should the dioramas be situated in the context of American museum display as a whole? How do formal, sensory, or object-based concerns intertwine with pedagogical and scientific ones?

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