Hidden Elves in Denver: The Artistry of the Museum Diorama

There are elves hidden in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They live amongst white-tailed deer, pronghorns, and blue herons in the museum’s dioramas. Some hide in trees, while one is perched on a dinosaur’s back. But all of these elves are the creation of one man – artist Kent R. Pendleton.

According to museum lore, Pendleton was not allowed to sign his name to diorama backgrounds he painted. Instead, he hid the elves as a way to leave his mark on the exhibitions. Interested in finding all of the known elves? A “Seek and Find” of museum secrets is available at the front desk, as the DMNS has truly embraced the tiny, mythical creatures.

This acceptance signals two recent trends in museum dioramas: the reconsideration of dioramas as composed artworks and the recognition of those diorama artists. Today museum dioramas are problematic for many museums, as they generally represent turn-of-the-century colonial views within museology. However, for many visitors, dioramas continue to offer moments of wonder inspired by the natural world. By considering the artistry behind dioramas, museums can redefine the place of these exhibitions within the contemporary museum.

Created as scientific educational tools, dioramas pose taxidermied animals in a natural scene to offer a sense of the animal’s native habitat. At the American Museum of Natural History, artists went into the field to collect animal and plant specimens; each diorama is representative of an actual place in the natural world.

Artist Raymond deLucia works on a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in 1939. Source: the American Museum of Natural History website

Still, taxidermy, background, and foreground artists played a huge part in crafting the scene: how are the animals posed? Do they interact? How does the weather reflect the mood of the diorama? What is the spatial relationship between the taxidermies and the botanical models?

AMNH has developed online exhibition resources to shed greater light on its beloved dioramas. From biographies of the diorama artists to virtual tours and behind the scenes views, the dioramas website is replete with information about the creation of these composed scenes. The online video collection ranks among the best of these features. Many are recorded by Stephen Quinn, author of Windows On Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, and use the backdrop of dioramas to situate historical research on their creation.

However, the website also includes archival footage of background artist James Perry Wilson painting the scene for the Fisher and Porcupine diorama in the Hall of North American Mammals. By illustrating the process and challenges of painting a large-scale diorama background as Wilson works, the narrator emphasizes the technical technique and artistry in the exhibitions.

In sharing the archival footage on the internet, the museum is able to recast the dioramas as artworks derived from scientific observation and study. This artistic perspective helps alleviate some of the problems of maintaining exhibitions of a different era. Above all, it elevates the work of talented museum professionals, obviously illuminating personal perspective and curatorial decisions to dioramas intended to mimic nature.

3 thoughts on “Hidden Elves in Denver: The Artistry of the Museum Diorama

  1. I love that you brought the human element into these dioramas. Denver is one of my favorite cities (go Nugs!). I can’t wait to go on the elf tour the next time I visit the museum. It is very interesting to think about the artist and his agency in the making of a diorama.

    It would be an interesting oral history project to interview the artists that are still alive and ask them about their contribution. I hypothesize that some may not have agreed with the message in a diorama (especially the ethnographic dioramas). Maybe the artist was also entrenched in the ideas of the times. In retrospect would he have changed the depiction? How many artists included small pieces of themselves and even protest in their paintings?

    In class we talked about the future of dioramas (especially these problematic ethnographic dioramas). I think your post may offer a very interesting answer to this question. What if we allowed modern artists to re-interpret these dioramas? It would be an opportunity for a modern audience to address the issues raised in dioramas. It would be very interesting to invite artists from some of the communities represented to re-interpret the existing dioramas. It would be a chance to make peace with the issues of the past and create modern contact zones. It would be a contact zone between museum, community, artist, and visitor. I believe it would raise questions that would benefit everyone’s views culture.

    1. I was also thinking about artist’s reinterpreting dioramas and had fully expected to find some kind of institutional critique work in which middle-class white people are put on ethnographic display, or the museum curator is shown in a “ritual pose” from which the audience might make deductions about the barbaric nature of the job. If there are any institutional critique artists out there reading this, feel free to take the idea and run with it!

      What I did find was Mark Dion’s work, *Polar Bear* (Ursus Maritimus), which examines how the mammal has been cast in museums across the country. Dion’s work is pretty stellar, so check it out!

      1. His work is awesome! Thanks for showing me.

        HAHA I would love to see a museum curator in a ritual pose! I am surprised the Guerilla Girls never did something like that. I can think of a few choice poses they would put a male curator in. (Head in his ass…)

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