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Web Hunt: Dioramas Coming to Life

Visit a few of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, and discover how each one is like a window into a specific time or place.

May 2006
Stephen Quinn is the senior project manager of dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo courtesy of AMNH)
Stephen Quinn is the senior project manager of dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo courtesy of AMNH)

The American Museum of Natural History may be located in New York City, but walk inside and you can travel across the planet or back in time. You can even connect with nature — in the middle of a city! You can visit these places through the museum’s lifelike dioramas, scenes with modeled figures and objects in realistic settings. Many dioramas show animals in their natural habitats — from giant squid in the deep ocean to dinosaurs in ancient forests. By sharing the wonder and importance of these habitats, nature dioramas can also encourage people to conserve these fragile areas. In the new Hall of Human Origins, diorama scenes show different periods in human history. Every diorama tells a story about a specific time and place, so each detail must be accurate. Explore some of the dioramas at the museum and discover some of the different stories they tell.

1. Over 100 years ago, pioneers crossing the wide, open plains of Wyoming would have seen herds of bison and pronghorn roaming together. Today, there aren’t as many of these animals living in the American West. But in this diorama, you can look back in time as if you were a pioneer in 1865. Look at some of the plants and animals that make up the habitat where the bison and pronghorn lived. Click the cowbird link to the right. Describe where this animal is found resting in the diorama. Then click prickly pear and explain what it is.

2. This diorama takes you to Africa, where you can see mountain gorillas living in Zaire. To create this diorama, a team of artists and scientists traveled to this exact spot to capture what it looked like. Every detail in the diorama is just as it appeared. Look at the diorama and read the paragraph under “Group Environment.” What is shown in the background of this diorama? Do these really exist? Click the audio button to listen to the mountain gorilla. What do you think the thumping sound is?

3. This next diorama is another window back in time. It shows an ancient forest where dinosaurs lived 130 million years ago. First, click the audio button to listen to the soundscape of the forest. What sounds are familiar sounds that you might hear in a forest today? Then read about the diorama. Name two animals from the diorama that still live on Earth today, and two that are now extinct.

4. Some dioramas show how animals live together in their habitat. Check out this diorama of dolphins and tuna. Describe how the two animals are interacting. What other kind of animal do you see traveling along with them? What does this diorama tell you about how deep in the ocean these animals live?

5. In the Museum’s new Hall of Human Origins, visitors can explore dioramas scenes of different periods in human history. Each diorama scene shows us a particular place and time, like this one of a Neanderthal campsite. In what modern-day country did this group of Neanderthals live? How long ago did they live?

6. Each diorama scene in the Hall of Human Origins shows how humans have used materials from their environment. For example, people have used stones as tools and weapons and animal skin for clothing. Check out What’s This? to see a mystery photo of bones that were used to build an ice age hut. Can you guess what they are?

7. Now go behind the scenes to see how dioramas are created. The animals in the dioramas are mounted using taxidermy, a technique of preparing and displaying animal specimens so they look alive. Click through “Mounting a horse.” What is the first step in creating a horse for a diorama? What is the final step? (Hint: An “armature” is like a frame that supports the sculpture.)

Bonus Round: Diorama Gallery

Check out the diorama gallery to see lots more animals and habitats. You’ll find two Alaska moose in battle, giraffe and other animals gathered around an African waterhole, and mountain goats scaling a cliff high above glaciers. Search for clues in the Web site to answer these questions:

Where do peregrine falcon make nests for their young?

How are the cheetah and the leopard alike? How are they different? (Hint: Look closely at their coats.)