The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, like many other natural history museums, is well known for its dioramas filled with charismatic megafauna posed in exotic habitats and frozen behind glass. Its moose is a hallmark of Philadelphia childhoods, second only, perhaps, to their Tyrannosaurus rex. However, even for adults, these dioramas are a window on the world. From the confines of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, these scenes bring us to places we could only have dreamed of.
A Spring Cleaning 80 Years in the Making
Although the dioramas seem timeless, they age. Light damages animal fur no matter how carefully it is managed. Soot and the dirt of the city accumulate on wax leaves, no matter how airtight the cases were built to be. This winter, conservators at the Academy began renovations and restorations of two of its signature dioramas: the takin group and the gorillas. In February, they put on respirators, unsealed the glass, and braved dust that hadn’t been stirred up in 80 years. The whole process of restoration will take about six months, with the glass being replaced at the beginning of September.
Neither of these two dioramas, nor any of the 36 others, have been touched since they were installed. Now, in addition to cleaning and restoring the specimens and the painted backdrops with modern chemicals and other new technologies, new lighting will reduce damage, bring these creatures to life and, frankly, make for better Instagram photos. In order to do this work, the Academy has created alcoves in front of each diorama where assistants like Lauren Duguid work in plastic suits and protective masks cleaning each and every leaf with a variety of soaps, synthetic saliva, buffered water, and solvents.
The dioramas are clearly works of art, and the process used to conserve them draws from the conservation of painting and sculpture more than from the usual techniques used for plants or fossils. However, while highlighting their artistry–indeed, part of the project’s funding comes from a grant to support Asian art–the Academy has made a conscious decision to maintain the dioramas first and foremost as tools for contemporary science education. Beyond a desire to improve the material condition and the appearance of the scenes to forge new immersive experiences, the museum is introducing new labeling and interpretation that will draw more rigorously on what we know today about these ecosystems and how each species fits into its larger environment. Digital touch screen displays and video footage will create a new way of combining the impact of seeing the life-sized specimens up close with footage of their actual behavior in the wild. The hope is that a new interpretive framing of the old specimens will enable fresh ways of learning about and relating to the natural world.
This new interpretation is presenting an ecological approach to the study of the natural world, as the dioramas always have, but it is also looking at newer questions of how habitats have changed over short time periods of just 100 or 200 years. New text elaborates on what has happened to the real environments since the 1930s when the specimens were collected and the display unveiled. It deliberately confronts human destruction of the environment. It explores what “habitat loss” really means and points a finger at who/what has caused it. Neither the dioramas nor the places they represent look today the way they did 80 years ago.
This emphasis on using a historical mode of display to explore research in contemporary science pervades the renovations. However, despite the interest in the dioramas as historical documents of the environment, the Academy has made a very conscious decision to not just resore and preserve the displays as they are, but to correct their scientific errors. Conservators are replacing a butterfly that doesn’t live alongside the gorillas with one that does, and they are adding a snail to better represent rainforest biodiversity. The emphasis, then and now, is on authenticity and accuracy, on representing the truth of nature as we know and understand it today, so that visitors can connect with something that is far away, yet is very real. If viewers can connect with these places, they may better understand them and better fight to preserve the ones that humans are destroying.
Collection, Conquest, and Colonialism
The Academy is, ultimately, a science museum not a museum of history. But science, this museum, and these specimens still have a past. The encounter with nature that is represented here is not limited to visitors standing at the glass or to curators 80 years apart making decisions about which butterfly and which snail to include or exclude. If the interpretation of the current displays is meant to teach visitors about the relationship between humans and nature in order for us to preserve it, historically these dioramas told a different story that was similarly about science and the relationship between man and nature. But, intellectually, it was underpinned by a different era of colonialism and conquest. If we look back to 1931 and 1934, to Tibet and Central Africa, to collectors like Brooke Dolan II and George Vanderbilt, we find vital social and cultural context that tells us as much as the specimens themselves do. Vanderbilt, who collected the gorillas, is the name that will be familiar to most. However, the story of Dolan and the takins reveals even more about how the process of collecting for a scientific institution like the Academy is tied up in larger human networks of wealth, power, and global politics.
In 1931 when he collected the takins, Brooke Dolan II was 23 and travelling in Tibet to collect for the Academy for the first time. His grandfather, Thomas Dolan, made a fortune in Philadelphia in textile mills and public utilities during the 19th century. This enabled an elite upbringing for his grandson that included attendance at St. Paul’s boarding school and then education at Princeton and Harvard. It also meant that when Dolan dropped out of Princeton, and later when he was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, instead of going to work in a factory or going to jail, he could mount an expedition to Tibet to find himself. He told Ernst Schäfer, renowned German zoologist and future SS officer who accompanied Dolan on these expeditions, “I’m going to Tibet in order to search for the truth. If you help me create in addition some scientific collections, so much the better.”
Reflecting this attitude, in the 1930s Dolan was more likely to be described as an adventurer and a sportsman than a scientist (and socialite is an equally apt descriptor). He was officially a research associate for a serious scientific institution, but collectors like Dolan and Vanderbilt brought to the museum a different relationship to the natural world than its professionally trained scientists, in part because their wealth gave them a different relationship to work and leisure. For Dolan, collecting was sport and recreation as much as it was science.
Just as much, natural history, especially when seen through collectors like Dolan, Vanderbilt, or Teddy Roosevelt, is inextricably linked to histories of colonial invasion that science has tried to efface by defending its activities as objective inquiry and investigation. When Brooke Dolan went to Tibet and when George Vanderbilt went to Africa, they may not have been official agents of a colonial empire, but their actions abroad were just as much about conquest and mastery over the natural world as was that of the British or the French. The Academy expeditions went out into the most remote reaches of the world to see things few people have ever seen before, but also to bring them back as spectacles of sporting prowess–evidence of the authority and superiority of white, male civilization over the natural world and the indigenous people whose culture it deemed primitive.
At least in the 1930s, Brooke Dolan II, George Vanderbilt, and the Academy itself embodied scientific values, but also ideologies of privilege and power. One of the things institutions like the Academy were concerned with was bringing nature to new immigrants and urbanites in the industrialized city who had little access to nature. Yet, in bringing nature to Philadelphians, the Academy also wanted to show visitors the proper relationship between man and nature and by extension they meant to show the proper relationship between civilization and barbarism. They wanted to demonstrate their own influence over the natural world in a way that would shore up their eroding command over a society that was suddenly changing as European immigrants came to America, Black migrants came north, laborers went on strike, and women won the right to vote. As much as the dioramas are about scientific knowledge, they are evidence of these social histories too.
While the formal, everyday interpretation of the dioramas will continue to focus on ecology, and not colonialism, the Academy is thinking about the social and human history of science and science museums as well. Jennifer Sontchi, the Senior Director of Exhibits and Public Spaces, discusses the inclusion of the butterfly and the snail as conscious decisions to update the science which the dioramas teach, but she also addresses the historical biases within the diorama that are not being changed. She explains that yes, gorillas can stand up and stare off stoically into the distance like the Academy’s does, but that that is also a strategic pose that creates a story about the aggressive primate (presumably male) protecting the smaller primate (presumably female, but actually male) and the baby. The diorama is a recreation of the natural world, but it is also a statement about the human desire for drama, storytelling, and artistry. It is a statement about the rainforest, but also about gender norms, nuclear families, and even race.
Today the Academy is “dedicated to advancing research, education, and public engagement in biodiversity and environmental science,” but neither that mission nor the scientific specimens in their collections are without histories. The fading takins from colonial Tibet and the aging gorilla from the French empire are objects, and as objects they remind us that natural history collections come from somewhere and from someone, from a specific time and place with its own specific politics about who is able to go where and what they bring to back as objects. The dioramas we admire on the Parkway are those histories and they are still with us. If we look at the stories of these specimens and how they got to Philadelphia, we can build on the environmental science about man’s impact on the environment and better understand the other ideological ways in which humans have used science in service of political objectives.