The Diorama: Memory, Nature, Conservation



Volume 1, Issue 22
March 28, 2016



Dioramas were created to serve as metonyms to the natural world, recursive replications of physical places, plants, and animals. Originally meant to be used pedagogically, to inform the public of the types of biological life that existed in locations both foreign and familiar, the diorama borrows its structure and utility from traditions and practices of memory, recall, and collection. The diorama is, for the most part, a wholly constructed object. It contains models of a specific landscape’s flora and fauna; plastic and clay plants, taxidermied animals, and a carefully painted background, perspectively engineered to enhance the illusion of reality. Each diorama has a root in a specific location to which expeditions are made to gather animal and plant specimens and record the environment in person. Every aspect of its fabrication imparts authenticity to the diorama to the point that (res ipsa loquitor, ‘the thing speaks for itself’) it becomes a 1:1 example of the habitat region it represents. The diorama is the “re-creating [of a] slice of the real world for public exhibition”, but it does “not copy nature slavishly…it aims to give a broad and graphic presentation of the conditions under which certain assemblages of animal life are found…so that it is a complete whole artistically, geographically, historically, and biologically.”[1] Reaching heights of popularity in 1940, it was proclaimed that “the public is rapidly becoming familiar with the world through the increased applications of its models…thus making us ‘diorama conscious.’”[2] As dioramas became a popular way to bring “a vision of the world to those who can otherwise never see it,”[3] they became surrogate memories of the past and for experiences of the present – always idealized to an extent so that the scenes displayed could never truly be found in nature.[4]

The diorama as a localization of memory is a construct that is highly influenced by the Renaissance interpretation of the classical Art of Memory. The Art of Memory is rooted in the tradition of Greek and Roman orators who, instead of memorizing word for word the content of their speeches, began to create mental structures, rooms inside houses, placing in them objects that evoked passages and theses when seen (through the mind’s eye). When beginning to speak, they would simply ‘walk’ through these virtual spaces and recall their speech. As the constructed space of a diorama has a physical correlation to the reality of nature, so did each memory room to the text of a speech.

The aesthetics of these virtual spaces of memory eventually begat a physical form: the early Renaissance wunderkammer, curiosity cabinets. These were rooms and display cases filled with artifacts generally classified under the heading of natural history. Each artifact or specimen alone deserved interest  in this context due to its geographic and temporal relationship to the site and moment of display. As one of many specimens, instead of losing its affect, it would only become a more unique poignant image through its juxtaposition and differentiation. This is the mechanic by which virtual memory rooms operate – the incongruity of the objects that it contains allows for the recall of specific information, each item standing for a discrete thought.

Throughout every iteration of the virtual spaces of memory and the physical spaces of display, meaning is generated through the precise calibration of the objects in their placement, appearance, and referent. The differences between the Art of Memory and the curiosity cabinet boils down to the difference between the frail and the eternal. The frail, according to Giulio Camillo, resided in the insubstantial relations made by ancient orators wherein objects were made to represent only ideas. The eternal was everlasting because of the inherent real truths of the “eternal nature of all things.”[5] To Camillo, the immaterial space of memory room was frail, weak and fungible, while his memory theaters were superior physical spaces filled with tangible, thus eternal, objects that correlated to outer, universal, truths.

The diorama can be further interpreted as an mnemotechnic through the work Francis Yates. He defines Camillo’s memory theater as “a system of memory places [that perform] the office of a classical memory system for orators by ‘conserving for us the things, words, and arts which we conserve to it’” and which “utilize real places to improve upon and reduce the burden of memory.”[6]

The memory theater was a tool for instantly imparting information, not simply one of recall. It was immediate knowledge – an instant primer on every subject included within its walls. It assumed that “all things that the human mind can conceive after being collected together…may be expressed by certain corporeal signs in such a way the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything otherwise hidden.”[7] Yates writes that “memory can only be improved…by the operation of fantasy towards ideas in the round art, or through images of corporeal things in the square art,” referencing the two forms of memory as described by the 16th century physician and mystic Robert Fludd.[8]

However, in the diorama, this divisive binary of memory becomes intertwined. Square art is the foundation, the anchor, for the actions of the round art. Square art utilizes “images of corporeal things, of men, of animals, of objects…engaged in actions of some kind” and it is strongly suggested to place these images in “real places.”[9] These are the taxidermied animals, the modeled flora, and the painted backdrop. However, the diorama as it is contained in a curated interior space is not technically a ‘real place.’ Its status as an authentic replica of a ‘real place’ is gained through the physical actions of its architects and the more intangible workings of the round art of memory. As the craftsmanship in constructing the diorama tends towards the idiom of ars celare artem, art to conceal art, there needs to be a more dynamic aspect that activates objects within. Round art is this metaphysical act, ‘the operation of fantasy towards ideas’ that connects the square images to the thematic whole and outer reality that they signify. Because of the incredible veracity of the items (square art) within a diorama in respect to the real, round art is activated by being organically affiliated at a base level with the items and images found within it. The combination of the two activates memory, supplying a replacement for experience (immersion). The illusion of a diorama is meant to recreate “the experience of encountering wildlife in the out-of-doors.”[10]


The idea of counterfeiting natura, or the living aspects of the real world, was another development of the Renaissance. As conceived of at the time, natura was divine – animated by God. A replication of natura “enacted the reintegration of the divine and the human [to the point that] the viewer might be moved to an essentially religious reverence by contemplating both the depiction of God’s creation and the inspired virtuosity with which it was done.”[11] The ongoing classification of the natural world through its representations in two and three dimensions created a new visualization of the world that critically and aesthetically combined the divine and the human.

In discussing the rise of Natural History in America, Sue Ann Prince writes that: “A specimen is a curious means of representing nature because what is used is all or part of what was the living thing itself. It is thus more than a representation but less than real, live nature. It is mediated by human hands, whether in the form of a bone removed from the context of a body, a skin stuffed with straw, or a flattened flower deprived of fluid and color. Yet specimens were universally used for study and as “live-models” for drawings and paintings.”[12]  

Prince illustrates the general acceptance that single specimens, even ones that were contaminated (mediated), were thought of as ‘good enough’ to produce an accurate description of reality. But to create a coherent whole from a series of parts is always an exercise in failure. The way that specimens (objects) operated within memory theaters and rooms was due precisely to their inability to cohere. Their differentiation from the whole was what allowed them to hold such iconic potential. However, the diorama required the creation of a consistent experience and thus attempted to achieve a higher accuracy, removing mediation as much as possible to be able to create a whole from its parts. To this end, extensive and expensive expeditions were sent to the sites that would later be recreated. For instance, in 1996 the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) sent “a team of twenty-six artists and scientists to the wilds of the Central African Republic to collect the references to create its largest diorama.”[13] This collecting (though hunting is a more accurate word) of animals, plants, and the creation of sketches, photographs, and paintings produced what Michael Rossi calls ‘remnant data’ – “scraps of information taken from the physical entities being modeled.”[14] This gathered data combined with the virtuosity of the human hand, created what was accepted as accurate reproductions – drawn from scientific study of and physical intimacy with the subjects.

Authenticity is problematic in the diorama as it is precisely not real. It is a representational fiction, at once both real and fabricated (this combination is the source of its once religious reverence). It is in its necessary mediation ‘by human hands’ where the public and scientific communities find the most qualms and it is thus their dimensionality that is indicted here. While the three dimensionality of the diorama distinguished it from earlier representational efforts, the effects of modeling were problematic. As the diorama approached a fidelity that allowed it to be perceived as real, its inherent artificiality cast doubt on its authenticity. It was agreed that to first encounter a subject in its natural environment  made its replication legitimate, authentic, to the public.[15] To model without experience was to make a false image.  Thus the diorama’s casts and models captured “not just a two-dimensional representation of the subject at a particular moment in time, but the subject’s proprioceptive space – its actuality, its authenticity, or, in other terms, its “feeling of reality.”[16]

Animals staged in dioramas as-large as they lived become larger than life in their new contexts. Donna Harraway writes on this monumentalization of the diorama in Primate Visions saying that here “the specular commerce between an animal at the interface of two evolutionary ages is completed. The animals in the dioramas have transcended mortal life and hold their pose forever…  No visitor to a merely physical Africa could see these animals. This is a spiritual vision made possible only by their death and literal re-presentation. Only then could the essence of their life be present. Only then could the hygiene of nature cure the sick vision of civilized man.”[17] Harraway positions the diorama as an optical storytelling device that adds new synthetic politics of reproduction to the natural world. Her critique is an accurate one as it was intended that each habitat group “form a developmental series, such that [it] can represent the essence of the species as a dynamic living whole.”[18] This required a concentration of each species’ particular habits and environment into a metonymic composition and, as comes with any method of reduction and representation, details were lost.

But that is not to say they are not memorial – for they are, and perhaps even more so for this reason. Dioramas function as memorials similarly to lieux de mémoire, as defined by Pierre Nora, which is to say “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.”[19] Lieux de mémories are intrinsically unstable spaces that attempt to preserve their specific histories while society inexorably moves forward around them. Dioramas are created at moments, and preserve those moments. As they are relatable to a specific place and time but are fundamentally never exact replicas of it, they force “the spectator to establish a conceptual relationship between these two [temporal and spatial] sites.”[20] Presented publicly, they are decidedly more active than Nora’s lieux de mémoire: not just idle stewards of the past, but actively memorializing their represented spaces to create an awareness of its fragility.


Until the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, the American wilderness was “a cultural and moral resource and a basis for national self esteem.”[21] While it continued to be after this point, this sense of pride was now related to what could be done with it. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago marked this transformation, showcasing the potential of electrical power and manufacturing over that of the ideal of utopian nature which Thoreau had preached only fifty years prior. The image of hydroelectric dam overshadowed, sometimes quite literally, the waterfalls that had once defined the nation’s heritage. In this context, the dioramas again act as embodied memory, providing an escape into the ‘virgin wilderness’ as well as a reminder of the potential of nature. “One of the central justifications for the production of habitat groups in natural history museums during the early 20th century was their value as documentation of a passing era, not only in American history, but in the history of the world.”[22]

The AMNH promoted the creation of the Hall of North American Mammals “in light of the increasing disappearance of American wilderness” and “for future generations that may not have the opportunity of knowing the living animals.”[23] Targeting threatened species, this was replaced with a more direct message saying, “on account of the encroachments of civilization, it [the diorama] was determined to collect them first.”[24] For every habitat group, there will come a time that the environment it represents can only be imagined.[25] What the Hall of North American Mammals did is pre-empt that time. By making the future of as much interest as both the past and the unfamiliar, the diorama was enacted to produce a “correct image of nature, and perhaps, someday, the only remaining evidence of its existence.”[26]

Owing to this message of conservation, some dioramas have engendered acts of preservation in the physical spaces they represent. Because of this third transformation: from reality to virtuality, back to reality – a few characteristics of the diorama’s constructed nature bleed back into the world. Upon the creation of the Pelican Island diorama in 1902, President Roosevelt responded by establishing the Pelican Island Federal Bird Reserve. The same site represented and contained in the diorama’s microcosm was similarly preserved and contained in its own right. Instead of glass walls, federal laws protect its contamination – and instead of a dynamic staged tableau, the dynamism of lived-life exists within its own organic, rather than synthetic, ecosystem.

In another situation, slightly more sinister, the creation of the Tule Elk diorama occurred during a period when its population was in drastic decline. When the diorama was completed in 1916, “there remained only one small herd confined to an enclosed and protected refuge.”[27] In this case, by the time the diorama had approximated reality, reality had already taken on the characteristics of preservation that the diorama innately applied to its subject. Here the diorama’s mimesis becomes more like an equilibrium than anything else in its doubling of the real: its replication shaping reality to match it.

If we recall Harraway’s critique that “this is a spiritual vision made possible only by [an animal’s] death and literal re-presentation,”[28] we can make an interesting observation on the rise in popularity and the cultural significance attached to the diorama. The first habitat group at the AMNH was a purely American one. The Robin Group featured two birds nesting in the boughs of an apple tree and “proved so popular that it easily generated funding for more.”[29] These subsequent dioramas were of a limited scope, including only birds found in a fifty-mile radius of New York City. The question here is why would painstakingly fabricated dioramas of quotidian sights, so often experienced that they represented a natural vernacular for American citizens, excite so much response? The answer lies in the fact that the diorama, when all is said and done, is a distinctly unnatural vision. The same sight that was displayed in the museum could just as easily been seen outside a kitchen window or in a backyard – so the ability of the diorama to trick its viewer into believing they had been “transported in time and space” was irrelevant.[30] Something decidedly ‘other’ in the diorama’s appearance must have been at play in the popular perception of these images to make them so celebrated.

By idealizing the otherwise mundane natura of the robin and the apple tree, the diorama removes it from an ordinary context and presents it as an example of the potential of nature. Despite this superficially simple operation the themes of preservation and conservation are still invoked. The re-presentation of the robin in the space of a diorama carries with it a different set of relations and signifiers than the simple sight of the bird in a more personal setting would. This is the reminder that the diorama elicits. That it is displayed gives it attention, that it is familiar makes it relatable, and that it is both dead and alive gives it pathos.

The Robin Group, by bringing the diorama dangerously close to what it represents in both space and time, stresses its mechanics and makes its functions visible. We can see through this screen that the wonder the birds elicit  is related to their ‘literal re-presentation’ within a spatially conflated lieux de mémoire – but it also is derived from the “belief in the macrocosm-microcosm relationship.”[31] Through this, they become more real than nature could ever be – and even replacements for it (better examples of themselves). In Yates’ terms the robins’ transformation was possible because they did not require  ‘the operation of fantasy towards ideas’ as the sensations usually created by this operation were familiar to of its observers. Both the frail and the eternal, the round and the square  are collapsed into one – the image. The experience, the object, and the idea are all fully realized in the diorama of the robin. Its relationship to a common reality sets it apart from the rest of the dioramas contained within the museum’s halls. It becomes differentiated as it’s more real than our common reality, but not so real as to be completely virtual.

Despite that the diorama only opens itself up to an observer visually, it is not an image. As it is a closed volume it can be approached as an object, but only from specific perspectives. Most importantly, regressed into the wall, it can never be fully seen.  It can be experienced and conceptualized on multiple levels, but at the most instinctual level  it engages the body in the urge to see more. “You can see a lot of nose traces on the glass.”[32] It stretches truth through the metonymic relationship of its contents to the outside world and its strictly sign based method of communication. It is purely an object of memory, of recall and projection. Its intangibility, like our own histories and dreams, make it even more so.

[1] Karen Elizabeth Wonders, Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History. (Uppsala, Acta Universitas Upsaliensis: 1993), 18.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stephen Quinn, Windows on Nature, (New York, Abrams: 2006), 12.

[5] Camillo was a 16th century Italian architect who designed a physical theater of memory based on platonic ideals and an astrologically inspired layout.

[6] Frances Amelia Yates, The Art of Memory, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1966), 328.

[7] Ibid., 144.

[8] Ibid., 324. (these can be seen as expansions on the frail and the eternal)

[9] Ibid., 327.

[10] Quinn, Windows, 12.

[11] Jonathan Wylie, “Counterfeiting Nature: Artistic Innovation and Cultural Crisis in Renaissance Venice.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32 no. 01 (1990): 80

[12] Sue Ann Prince, Stuffing Birds, Pressing Plants, Shaping Knowledge: Natural History in North America, 1730-1860, (Philadelphia, PA, American Philosophical Society: 2003), 4.

[13] Quinn, Wonders, 21.

[14] Michael Rossi, “Fabricating Authenticity: Modeling a Whale at the American Museum of Natural History, 1906–1974,” Isis 101 no. 02 (2010):  338.

[15] Ibid., 349.

[16] Ibid., 356.

[17] Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, (London, Routledge: 1989), 30.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 12.

[20] Ann Reynolds, “Reproducing Nature: The Museum of Natural History as Nonsite,” October

45 (1988): 14.

[21] Wonders, Habitat, 160.

[22] Ibid., 161.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Wonders, Habitat, 142.

[25] In a way, every habitat group represents an imagined environment, an ideal of natural history existing without mention or evidence of man’s intervention.

[26] Reynolds, “Reproducing Nature,” 123.

[27] Wonders, Habitat, 165.

[28] Harraway, Primate, 30.

[29] Quinn, Wonders, 16.

[30] Reynolds, “Reproducing Nature,” 114.

[31] “”It is of course a highly occult or magical system, based on belief in the macrocosm-microcosm relationship.”   Yates, The Art of Memory, 120.

[32] Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Chronotypes and Diorama, (New York, Dia Art Foundation: 2010), 58.

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Volume 1, Issue 22
March 28, 2016

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