What’s in a Diorama? Lessons in Interpretation from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

by Bryan & Heather

Whether miniature, life-size, or even breathing, dioramas form one of the oldest and most varied interpretive tools in the public historian’s arsenal. In a discipline that relies so heavily on sparking visitors’ sense of imagination, a good diorama can pay dividends in providing a ready-made jumping off point for the public to begin visualizing the history they’re consuming–especially in the case of older events for which photographs or even paintings largely don’t exist. The emphasis there, of course, is on the word “good;” dioramas too often slip into the realm of the silly, farcical, or even mildly offensive when too much emphasis is placed on entertainment or figures are represented with, shall we say, less-than-human likeness.

Yet all too often, the intellectual and physical effort that goes into assembling a museum-quality diorama is ignored or simply unknown to most visitors. We were pleasantly surprised, then, when our visit to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History encountered multiple interpretive displays educating visitors on exactly that process. Upon reflection, it made total sense–it’s hard to imagine a public history venue that depends more on dioramas than a natural history museum, from small displays of modern taxidermized wildlife to gigantic, hall-spanning tableaus of fossilized prehistoric organisms. At the Carnegie, each decision and step of putting together these dioramas was highlighted, demonstrating for visitors how even such small considerations as the pose of an animal or what background vegetation to include all contribute to a holistic vision of what history to interpret and the best way to interpret it.

The greatest achievement of this approach to explaining public history, however, came with a centerpiece diorama whose most central elements, ironically, were all too human. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has for decades been home to a unique display entitled “Lion Attacking a Dromedary.” While it was originally a part of the museum’s collection of similarly constructed creature biome dioramas, it has now been pulled out into one of the atria and given its own, customized display case because, as that very case states…it’s complicated. The diorama is old, and in constructing it, the original designers did not pay attention to principles of good interpretation so much as principles of orientalism, imperialism, and sensationalism. The human messenger in the diorama also has the dubious distinction of being built around actual human remains. The new case conducts visitors through every element of this highly problematic exhibit, from the inaccuracies of its material culture (a sampling of various North African garments that would never have been worn together by any single culture) to the ongoing efforts to identify and repatriate its human remains to even the general trouble with perpetuating the myth that predators’ default is to bloodthirstily attack humans. This isn’t a one-way discussion, either; once they reach the end of their walk around the display, visitors are encouraged to submit any other thoughts or objections they have concerning “Lion Attacking a Dromedary” to the museum and be part of an ongoing conversation.

Not only could we not have asked for any more lucid and responsible an approach to owning up to outdated interpretation, but it seemed to us that there, in that hushed hall of such a venerable institution, lay the answer to so many of the fractious debates over public history and modern memory that our society has experienced over the past decade. This diorama was not packed into storage or destroyed, nor was it allowed to remain in place unmolested; instead it was renovated and reinterpreted in such a way as to not just acknowledge its flaws but educate visitors as to why those flaws existed in the first place–etched onto the very glass one looks through to see it. This approach of forthrightly acknowledging the complications of our past in ways that spark further (reasonable) conversation–while not allowing anyone to ignore that stark historical context–is exactly what is needed for such objects as Confederate monuments, plantations, and edifices both architectural and human that were built on the back of slavery and other imperialist exploitation. We can only hope that we see more of it soon.

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