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.
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.