The (not so lost) art of museum dioramas

Artist Aaron Delehanty works on a mural for Chicago's Field Museum (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

Artist Aaron Delehanty works on a mural for Chicago’s Field Museum (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

In 2016, the Field Museum launched a crowdfunding campaign to create their first new habitat diorama in decades. The diorama, depicting the lives of four striped hyenas captured in 1896 by famed museum taxidermist Carl Akeley, came to life thanks to Aaron Delehanty, an artist dedicated to recreating the natural world as accurately as possible.

“I build time machines,” Delehanty says in a talk at TEDxFlourCity. “My time machines are dioramas that recreate a specific space in time, in nature and human history.

Striped Hyena Habitat Diorama by Aaron Delehanty

Striped Hyena Habitat Diorama by Aaron Delehanty (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

For the Field Museum diorama, Delehanty worked with a team of scientists to make the scene as realistic as possible — to recreate the lives of these hyenas in 1896 Somalia, where they were captured. “Our team — we scrutinize every single leaf, every single stone that went into it,” he says. “I even had to remake the little ball of poo that the dung beetle was pushing around because a scientist said my first ball wasn’t fibrous enough for the environment.”

A dung beetle in the Striped Hyena Habitat Diorama (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

A dung beetle in the Striped Hyena Habitat Diorama (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

For the mural depicting the morning sky, Delehanty consulted with an astronomer to make sure the star placement matched exactly what it would have been on August 6, 1896 at 5:30 a.m. — when taxidermist Akeley came across the hyenas. “If you’re looking northeast, [what we painted] is the star pattern that you would have seen — even the moon is in the correct phase,” he says.

The star lineup for the diorama (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

The star lineup for the diorama (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

Dioramas may seem a bit out of touch, but they have a charm to them that new technology can’t recreate, Delehanty says. “We shouldn’t dismiss this old form of communicating,” he says. “Dioramas have a lot to tell us and I’m convinced that this is the reason why so many people love dioramas.”  They are interactive in a way video or text is not. “[When] you stand in front of [a diorama],  you teleport into this other place. It really sparks your imagination,” he says.

A diorama of life under an ice sheet by Aaron Delehanty

A diorama of life under an ice sheet by Aaron Delehanty (Photo: Aaron Delehanty)

“The next time you’re somewhere and you encounter a diorama, I want you to stop, take a deep breath and allow the world around you to just melt away and disappear. Take an adventure inside that time machine and lose yourself in it.”

To learn more, watch Delehanty’s entire talk below:

 

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