Diorama-rama

[photo, left: Dead porcupine, Los Angeles]

One thing about the home I left this year, the SF Bay Area: The science museums there will spoil you but good. The flagship is the California Academy of Sciences, for whose erstwhile publication I actually did a little writing back in the day. Anything I can write about CAS is outdated, as they’ve opened up a brand new facility in Golden Gate Park that I haven’t seen, but the pre-move facility was damn impressive, aquarium-cum-planetarium-cum-paleoecological reconstruction done right.

Across the Bay is the Oakland Museum, quite possibly my favorite natural history museum, though Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum offers some serious competition. Oakland Museum’s natural history section is a mere third of the museum, but of all the places I’ve been to, again possibly excepting the ASDM, the Oakland Museum does the best job of contextualizing natural history. OM has the usual dioramas of taxidermied dead things arranged artfully, but rather than sticking all of them in wall sconces the majority are in mid-floor, the smaller ones in clear plastic boxes: you can walk all around, look at each one from various angles. The metaorganization works too: the hall is laid out as a transect of mid-latitude California, with the coastal stuff close to the entrance. As you walk farther into the exhibits you pass the Inner and Outer Coast Ranges displays, the Central Valley and Sierra Foothills and the High Sierra. At last, all the way at the back, is the California Desert section. Walking through you get a bit of a visceral feeling for the way the landscape of California is arranged, and a more physical understanding of things like rain shadow deserts.

Natural history museums are chronically underfunded and innovations in curatorial practice often get passed up for lack of the wherewithal to implement them, kid-pleaser items like animatronic dinosaurs usually getting first dibs on the capital improvements capital. The Oakland Museum and ASDM are unusual in that they show a uniform implementation of a curatorial ethic. You could add the Monterey Bay Aquarium to that list too, I suppose. Most natural history museums are more a patchwork, a mix of architectural styles and museum fashions and pedagogical theories. One presumes the CAS, having had a total makeover, might hang together as a whole more closely, in a curatorial sense, than it did before: those of you who’ve been there since the reopening in September are welcome to opine in comments.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, where I went for the first time yesterday, is definitely a patchwork. Successive expansions of the building show from the outside, as the architectural styles are both anachronistic and incongruous: the overall effect is not unlike seeing a person wearing a stovepipe hat, an argyle sweater, and Tevas.  It’s a charming building nonetheless, and in any event I was rapt as soon as I got inside, with Science Museum Nostalgia.

I still don’t understand why my parents never took me to the Buffalo Museum of Science when I was a kid. It wasn’t that far away. There was no admission charge. There was ample parking. The neighborhood wasn’t one of the commonly understood “good neighborhoods” in rigorously segregated 1960s Buffalo, but that sort of thing didn’t usually stop my parents from going places. Most parents in the demographic we were in, with the kind of kid I was, have family memberships to museums: it’s a default rainy weekend kind of thing. I don’t know why it wasn’t my parents’ thing. What I do know is that after five or six years of unsuccessful wheedling, at age twelve or so, I finally just gave up, left the house, and walked to the damn science museum myself. It took about an hour and a half of walking to get there, about three and a half miles through city streets and parks. And there it was: the pale brick front, the verdigris observatory dome I’d watched wistfully receding through my parents’ car’s rear window more times than I could count, and I was there. I walked up the stairs to the front door.

On the front door, in staid gold leaf letters, was an admonition that made my heart sink. No children under the age of eighteen were to be admitted to the museum without an adult in tow. I’d walked all that way for nothing. I’d have to wait until I was eighteen to get in, or find new parents, or something. I’d been to Toronto’s science centre [sic] on school field trips, but Toronto was two hours’ drive away and even less likely a destination for a family drive. Breaks, I did not have them.

The door opened. A security guard stood there, uniformed and gruff-looking. He’d obviously seen my shoulders slump. He waved me in. “Behave yourself,” he said. This remains one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, and people have done a hell of a lot of nice things for me. Beyond lay shiny terrazzo floors, sonorous echoes, impossibly high ceilings and dark wood paneling, and displays of rather tattered dead animals arranged in tableaux meant to represent various bits of the natural world in Western New York.

Little was provided in the way of context. Each blue jay’s or porcupine’s or white-tailed deer’s behavior was described, briefly, in accompanying interpretive material, but each diorama was a thing unto itself. Little if any attempt was made to provide a through-story to carry the observer from diorama to diorama. The line between Natural History Museum on one hand, and Curio Collection on the other, was not well-defined.

I’ve been to a lot of notable natural history museums since, from the Smithsonian and the Field Museum to the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History in downtown Bakersfield, and yet I still have a soft spot in my heart for the old, mainly outmoded Serious Stuffed Animal Diorama esthetic.

Hence my happy feeling of nostalgia at entering the LA County Museum of Natural History yesterday. Inside, there’s much the same feeling of dimly-lit mystery. The entrance has its canonical fossil T. rex and Triceratops locked in post-mortal combat, with flanking halls of Big Mammal Dioramas, African on one side and North American on the other. The Raven and I got there with the day mostly gone, committed triage, and so we’ll have to go back to see the gemsboks and hippopotami.

The North American mammals display hews to much the same “cabinet of curiosities” arrangement as the old museum in Buffalo. Though the emphasis is on mammals of Western North America, that’s about it for unifying themes. The displays had been restored at some point in the last forty years, with curators’ increasing focus on ecological context reflected in the addition of insects and small vertebrates to many of the displays, but each diorama is still a world of its own, with no overall organizing principle apparent. Walking past the scenes one visits the San Mateo Peninsula, the Grand Canyon, the Owens Valley, Alaska, then the Owens Valley again, then the redwoods and then back to the Owens Valley. I began to wonder whether a sort of ecological guilt over LA’s wholesale purchase of the Owens Valley played a role in the collections policy. Or maybe it was just convenience.

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Elsewhere in the museum there’s evidence of more recent curatorial sensibilities. Of special note is the Ralph W. Schreiber Hall of Birds, named for its creator after his untimely death from cancer in the 1980s. (Schrieber was one of the lead scientists who noted the correlation between DDT and reproductive failure in brown pelicans. Next time you see a brown pelican, think of Schreiber. If not for him you wouldn’t be seeing any pelicans.)  The Hall O’ Birds has a bunch of interactive interpretive displays aimed at the under-13 set, many of them appealingly devoid of high tech. What struck me most was the collection at the entrance, hundreds of birds arranged by family and labeled carefully.

Schreiber was certainly possessed of a fine ecological sensibility, and other LACMNH staff clearly did some rethinking of the museum’s mission around the time of the first Earth Day as well. Charismatic megafauna are lovely things, of course, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s more subtle denizens of more ignoble habitats began to get some attention in museum displays, and sometimes the display itself — as does this one at LACMNH, fuzzily photographed with my phone — fairly screams out the rough era of its inception:

LACMNH mudflats sign

That rounded “Geometric Sans” font probably looked relatively timeless back in its day, which coincidentally was about when museums started telling the public about things like mudflats and tubeworms and fiddler crabs, with the closest thing to charismatic megafauna being a dunlin or a sanderling.

Of course, that era ended with the advent of the most charismatic of all megafauna, the animatronic dinosaur. Others have noted that the Jurassic Park movies have had a Chixculub-sized impact on natural history museum curation, and The Raven and I were briefly pressed up against the mudflat sign to allow a free-roaming T. rex to go past, looking for small children to terrorize. (I’m as jaded by gimmickry as the next guy, but while I do love seeing little kids in science museums, I admit I wondered briefly about allowing similar T. rexen to roam all publicly funded science museums, with docents pointing out that they’re hungry, with a marked preference for shrieking prey.)

The dinosaur craze, which is unlikely to ebb anytime soon, has prompted the Page Museum, the LACMNH’s sister museum five miles northwest on Wilshire, to post a sign. The sign explains that the reason there are no dinosaurs in the bone-filled Page Museum is that each and every bone in the Page Museum came out of the La Brea Tar Pits just outside, and the tar pits only opened for business 40,000 years ago or so, and would need to be more than a thousand times older than they are to have captured dinosaurs. That’s not exactly true, of course: There were plenty of dinosaurs entrapped in the tar, some of them pretty damned impressive. But I suppose people asking about dinosaurs at a Pleistocene fossil location are unlikely to be mollified when told that there are plenty of live dinosaurs outside rummaging through the trash cans, and that they still get stuck in the asphaltum from time to time.

* though, sadly, not to the AMNH,  despite having spent a couple weeks in New York City with nothing much to do. This is surely a failing on my part.

5 thoughts on “Diorama-rama

  1. Sven DiMilo

    My natural-history-museum jones was stoked early and often by trips to the Carnegie, a trolley-ride away in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Love ‘em, old-fashioned taxidermical dioramas especially. Yes, missing the AMNH was foolish. Next time, and the time after that. One of these days I’ll make it off of the fourth floor there.

  2. Dave

    I love old-fashioned, cabinet-of-curiosities-type museums! My parents were fortunately big on museum-going, so I got to see a lot of the major ones before modern sensibilities ruined them forever. But even the older style had its drawbacks. Dioramas are grand, but not essential: to me, nothing beats a plain glass case (for smaller taxidermied specimens) or a simple platform in the middle of the floor, because I want to focus on the aesthetics of the creatures themselves, free from any didactic framing. Teaching can be done etirely via wall placards and audio tours (I should think podcasts would be the way to go these days -rent out MP3 players to those who don’t have their own). I guess basically I want natural history museums to more closely resemble art museums. I want people to like nature primarily because it’s beautiful, not because it’s edifying, in the same way that I would prefer to see heathful food sold on the basis of its superior flavor, and only secondarily because it’s better for you.

  3. kathy a

    i’m pretty sure i saw those very same stuffed animals in L.A. as a kid, on a field trip in 6th grade.  my mother wasn’t big on museums, or science of any kind, or history aside from US history, so occasional field trips provided what she could or would not.

    we did have memberships at laurence hall of science for years, when the kids were little.  actually, we made the rounds, many times:  the CA academy of sciences; children’s discovery museum in san jose; bay area discovery museum; lindsay wildlife museum; ardenwood farm; monterey aquarium; tilden park; muir woods; and beyond.  there is an embarassment of riches in the bay area.

    the oakland museum is one of our favorites, too; my daughter and i visited again last year, when she was home on break, and spent most of our time wandering the california natural history hall.

  4. bev

    My earliest museum experiences are similar to those described by Dave.  My parents took me to the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the Royal Ontario Museum many times over the years.  There was definitely a cabinet of the curiosities air to both of them, and pockets of that persist to this day.  Occasioonally, I visit friends working in the behind the scenes departments -herbarium curators and the labs of those working with fish and herps.  An interesting natural history museum that I came upon in recent years is the bird museum at the Malheur NWR in Oregon.  There are cases with mounted bird specimens in a quasi-diorama setting, and slide-out drawers with eggs and nests.  The building is small and the collection has the feel of something out of the past.  Well worth stopping off to see it if visiting the refuge or traveling in that area of the state.

  5. kathy a

    damn, bev.  we may need to visit the malheur, since daughter is in school in oregon.

    another one i really like is the santa barbara museum of natural history.  i completely adored it when it was a tiny operation in about 1971-2.  they have done a LOT with the place in intervening years.  the kids and i visited in, i guess, 2000.