Habitat dioramas—the kind with a painted background, plants in the foreground, and an animated animal in mid-action—are generally credited to Carl Akeley, a taxidermist and expeditionist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ironically, these museum displays were created, in part, to promote the conservation of the species that had been killed for display, highlighting the strange tension between animals as hunting trophies and creatures worthy of our empathy.
As Akeley saw it, though, the habitat diorama embodied a different tension, one between science and art. Akeley had become frustrated with the habitat-free, single-subject exhibition style common to most museums. If it were just about the animals, the older, curio-style displays would suffice—but Akeley wanted to give museum visitors a sense of the animal’s life, to animate the inanimate behind glass. On museum expeditions, he would measure the carcasses of his kills, preserve their hides with salt, and, once back at the museum, sculpt the animals’ musculature out of clay or plaster. Akeley’s 1890 muskrat diorama, which many consider the first specimen of the form he pioneered, is still viewable at the Milwaukee Public Museum, in an unassuming hallway near the bathroom.
The artful representation of the habitat is part of the narrative of dioramas. From the muskrats on, Akeley was careful to create animacy in his taxidermy, crafting habitats that conveyed both realism and emotion. On his plan for the American Museum of Natural History’s gorilla diorama, Akeley wrote: “I have been constantly aware of the rapid and disconcerting disappearance of African wildlife. [This] gave rise to the vision of the culmination of my work in a great museum exhibit, artistically conceived, which should perpetuate the animal life, the native customs, and the scenic beauties of Africa.” Both the real (animal skins and habitat details like plants) and the rendered (how the human artist interprets and frames the animal) work together to provide the narratives of habitat dioramas.
Around the turn of the 20th century, museum expeditions like Akeley’s hunted and killed a staggering number of animals around the world. For Americans, the timing of this newfound access to animals—transformed from from wild and possibly dangerous, creatures to mummified curios—was especially poignant. The 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, which debuted some of the first major habitat dioramas, was also the setting of Frederick Jackson Turner’s declaration that the American West had been closed.