It's Complicated

My relationship status with natural history museum dioramas is complicated. I visited the Bell Museum dioramas last week in their new home in St Paul, Minnesota and loved them still. This is strange because in general I am not a big taxidermy fan. All those trophy hunter wall mounts! Ugh!! 

I think the explanation starts with my first encounter. I was about 7 or 8 when I walked up the impressive steps, walked through the heavy glass doors and turned circles awed by the enormous entry hall of The American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (I grew up in New Jersey.) And that was just the warm up to being utterly transported by the rooms of dioramas that occupied me for hours.

Now I realize it was not just the magnificent animals, but the settings painted with such detail, realism and love that drew me wholly in. I traveled to the dessert and lapped from the same pool as the elephants and zebras. I felt the soft forest floor beneath my feet as the beavers built their home. I can conjure that experience any time.

I have been to the NYC museum since and the last time was to see a film installation exhibit created by my son about illuminated reefs which you watched lying on the floor of a tent set up in the dramatic ocean wing under the hanging model of a 94-foot-long blue whale. Another layer of deep emotional connection added.

When I moved to Minnesota and discovered the prior home of the Bell Museum on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota, I found another treasure trove of dioramas. The setting was humbler but the coziness and creaky wooden floors added an aspect of intimacy that only enhanced my experience. Our son, Brennan, made a short film there after hours in which Larry plays a janitor who may or may not be in contact with some of the beings behind the glass. One of my favorites of Brennan’s work. And need I add that I’ve watched Night at the Museum more than once (even one time without kids).

In the meantime, I grew up loving animals, never wanting to hunt or fish and avoiding ants on the sidewalk. As an adult, I hiked the Rockies, slept solo under the stars in the Boundary Waters to wake up and find fresh wolf prints in my previous day’s ski tracks, and finally adopting a vegetarian diet about 18 years ago. I think the early transporting experience embedded in my heart before the adult filters were in place to analyze,  criticize or crush my unbridled delight. Perhaps the depiction of the beauty of all life forms even encouraged my love of nature. 

My relationship with zoos is complicated in the same way. Life is complicated! I think reverence is the key to making sense of the confusion.. Some ventures seem to tred into sensitive territory.  But I find that, if I explore with dignity and love, these endeavors reveal more than I would have been able to know by staying hidden behind my boundaries.

Below are 2 dioramas revealed on postcards and photos from Brennan’s exhibit in NYC.


Mab Nulty