Magazine article USA TODAY

As Natural Looking as Nature Itself: An Iconic Museum Restores Its Famous Hall of North American Mammals

Magazine article USA TODAY

As Natural Looking as Nature Itself: An Iconic Museum Restores Its Famous Hall of North American Mammals

Article excerpt

MORE THAN 270,000,000 tourisis travel to U.S. national parks each year in search of beautiful landscapes and majestic animals, but it is the visitors to the American Museum of Natural History who often see the best views. In the Hall of North American Mammals, for instance, but for a mere glass wall, they come nose to nose with a mountain lion lounging in the Grand Canyon, a grizzly grubbing with her cubs in Yellowstone, and a coyote howling in Yosemite National Park.

For 70 years, museumgoers have been trans ported to such vivid scenes within the Hall's 41 detailed habitat dioramas, unique records of the continent's biodiversity and spurs to the conservation of its wildlife. Since spring 2011, exhibition specialists and conservators carefully have been restoring these treasures for generations to come.

"Dioramas may seem old-fashioned at first to some, but they are more like the real world than anything you'll see on a screen, even in 3D," says curator Ross MacPhee, a museum mammalogist who, together with Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, is overseeing the updating of interpretive panel texts, visitor guides, and educational materials based on the latest scientific research.

With backgrounds by some of the finest landscape painters of their time, the dioramas also are an unparalleled example of art in the service of science. Each tableau presents a snapshot of animals in a real location at a particular time of day or night, based on field observations by scientists, photographs, and on-site artists' sketches.

The current project, which culminates in the Hall's grand reopening this fall, similarly has required a high level of precision from the museum's conservation and exhibition teams. The bison, bears, coyotes, pronghorn, and elk, whose coats have faded over the years, meticulously are being retouched by hand and returned to their original hues. Lighting has been updated throughout to be more energy-efficient and less harsh. Landscape elements are being refreshed, from spooning on drifts of "snow" to cultivating real grasses to replenish thinned-out patches and plucking out wayward pine needles, one by one.

A close look at one of the dioramas illustrates the science and craft that goes into the creation and restoration of this iconic Hall. The wolf diorama is set on the southern shore of Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota, in the middle of a frigid December night. For the best view, stand three feet away, in the center.

In the background to the right of the wolves, a wail of footprints in the snow indicates that another, out-of-view animal has shifted from a walk to a frantic run. The prints' pattern reveals they were left by a white-tailed deer, which runs with a gait called "extended suspension." The wolves, in pursuit of their prey, run with a "gathered suspension" gait, leaving a different kind of print in the snow. "Every detail telling this dramatic predator-prey story is there in the diorama for the observer, the naturalist, to find," explains Stephen C. Quinn, a senior project manager in the Department of Exhibition.

When the Hall of North American Mammals' dioramas first were created, many popular renderings of wolves depicted these canines as malicious and snarling. This diorama breaks that stereotype by showing the animals as majestic, strong hunters rather than fairy tale villains. It also is one of the few dioramas where visitors can make direct eye contact with the specimens.

When painting the original diorama background, artist James Perry Wilson used his knowledge of meteorology and astronomy to create a scientifically accurate night sky. Overhead, Ursa Major and Minor, the Big and Little Dipper, shine among the aurora borealis. All are in their correct positions for the date and time of night represented, placing the viewer facing northward toward Ontario, across the lake. Wilson created the stars by beading up paint to catch vertical light and create star-like highlights. …

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