World’s Strangest

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Diorama World

What happens when the bison at the Museum of Natural History get dusty? Photographer Richard Barnes has traveled the U.S. photographing museum dioramas undergoing repair and maintenance, and his photos have been made into a book, Animal Logic, that was published last fall.

Do his photos, which emphasize the distinction between nature and artifice, increase or diminish your appreciation for museum dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and ’30s? In a recent issue of The Smart Set, Jesse Smith notes this detached perspective towards dioramas isn’t new– The American Museum of Natural History In New York has a section of its website devoted to their “renowned” and “beloved” dioramas, and the Museum’s chairman describes them as “amazing technical feats of illusion.” But once you admit they’re illusions, Smith argues, the dioramas are no longer viable as scientific learning tools. And perhaps we lose something as a result.

Smith admits that he prefers the approach of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. “It’s not willing to throw in the towel, as the American Museum of Natural History has done. On its site, the Academy budges very little: ‘Although their magic has diminished somewhat with the advent of television and the internet, dioramas still provide an opportunity to experience these magnificent animals up close.’ I don’t know if the Academy really believes this, or it just wants me to. It honestly doesn’t matter. I prefer to be the one stepping back to judge these on their own terms, and the Academy lets me do that.”

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(image credit: Richard Barnes)


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