This past week I took my goddaughter and her older brother and sister to the American Museum of Natural History. Our first stop at the museum was the Hall of North American Mammals which first opened in 1942. I fondly remember seeing these dioramas as a child which is when I last visited the museum.
Yet, I additionally have always found these dioramas populated with stuffed animals with their detailed trompe-l’oeil backgrounds to be a bit eerie and spooky . This feeling is in part structured by the presentation of the exhibits. The exhibition hall is darkened and the dioramas are for the most part brightly lit and they emerge from the darkness like a dream revealing their occupants who stand motionless and silent.
Unlike seeing animals in zoo, the animals in the museum exhibits do not move or utter a sound. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to view all these mammals without the perpetual noise of the museum crowds to really experience their eternal silence? Despite the visitor noise, standing there in the dark looking at the illuminated animals, I have a sense of nostalgia, loss and death.
Nostalgia for a long ago ended childhood when I first saw these frozen animals. Nostalgia for how I used to make dioramas in school. (Do kids make dioramas anymore?) A feeling of loss (or displacement?) for that queer little boy who survived until adulthood. And for all the people whom I lost along the way. The Hall of North American Mammals is a sort of tomb.
I also feel the dioramas are decidedly a 19th century practice even though the Hall of North American Mammals was opened in 1942. The exhibit speaks to the 19th century masculine need to collect, to classify, to divide, to control, to hunt, to exhibit. As I stand in the exhibition hall, I feel as if Teddy Roosevelt is standing behind me with his big gun as he gets ready to go hunting to find specimens for the museum.
Here are some of my favorites: