Carl Akeley's "Water Hole" Diorama at AMNH
Carl Akeley’s dioramas are masterworks of their genre, blending highly skilled artisanship with scientific accuracy and mission-driven message. At their time dioramas were windows onto worlds that few urban musuemgoers could imagine exploring in their lifetime. The museum built these windows on nature to transport the viewer to the far reaches of the earth and inspired a generation of cosmopolitans to establish the modern conservation movement. Eventually their effectiveness in communicating the magnificence of nature was superceded by other faster and more transportable media including the now ubiquitous ‘nature film’ of which Akeley was also a pioneer. I have often wondered what a 21st Century diorama might be like. What technologies would it employ? One place to look could be online and multi-player gaming with computer rendered 3D environments. These are immersive digital worlds that the body cannot inhabit but which inspire the imagination much as the diorama did for its generations.
The last time I visited the Natural History Museum, I was taken back by the fact I was comparing everything to Planet Earth. The displays were great, really amazing, but I felt like I learned so much more from the television series then the displays. At the same time, there were little corner areas where they had a video playing on a loop. The video was from the eights and very bad quality. I keep thinking that the museum needs to upgrade their technology to either work with the modern changes in film and travel or include them. I do believe that the dioramas are a great way to demonstrate the environment and are also one of the draws to the museum. To work with the technology of the nature films would vastly increase the museum viewers understanding of such dioramas. True, someday we will have digital 3D environments that are completely immersive; one could look at Second Life as an early type of the total environment. Yet, I feel that there is something to the dioramas that holds our attention; the reality of the animals is something that is special over the digital fabrication of an animal.
I agree there is something about the diorama that is very compelling and we will probably never achieve with technology. It has something to do with the physicality of the scene, the feeling that you could just step through the frame and into this other world. The University of Illinois Electronic Visualization Lab invented a 3d video cube for projecting and walking through scientific datasets. Its called a CAVE . Maybe this is something to explore. it is is already looking kind of old (like 15 yrs old) and I have not checked to see if there are improvements.
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