March 6, 2014
If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in museum dioramas, look no further than Unnatural History: The Odd and Remarkable Dioramas of Lori Nix, a photographic series by nationally renowned photographer Lori Nix, opening April 19 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Nix’s painstakingly crafted miniature dioramas, photographed in black and white, depict life at a typical natural history museum—with a humorous twist.
“We tend to think of anything we see in an institution as being truthful. I wanted to use that assumption and portray scenes that were almost true,” Nix said.
Nix’s 16 images, to be displayed in the Academy’s Art of Science Gallery, feature the rigid exhibit subjects emerging from their displays. Sharks swim through the halls; dodo birds cause havoc in the library; a one-legged T. rex gets assembled. The specimens are released from their glass cases, recaptured within the context of a diorama, and documented again in a photograph. And though the images convey action, they retain the special kind of quietness only found inside a museum.
“Lori Nix reveals the inherent artificiality of the natural history dioramas which serious institutions, such as ours, tout as sacred stages of truth and nature,” said Jennifer Sontchi, the Academy’s director of exhibits.
In this way, the Academy is a perfect venue to exhibit Nix’s work. The content of her images relates to the surroundings like a dream within a dream and puts the captured subjects on display once again. One of her miniature dioramas, created especially to exhibit at the Academy, also will be part of the show, presenting a unique opportunity to observe her process.
“I laughed when I saw her photos, because I saw in them the Academy itself,” said Sontchi.
When she has time to wander, Nix, who lives in New York City, enjoys going to the American Museum of Natural History. She prefers the older exhibits, and she stops to appreciate their craftsmanship. It is the same kind of craftsmanship, imagination and scientific accuracy that went into making the dioramas at the Academy of Natural Sciences in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Recently, two new nature soundscapes have been added in North American Hall to enhance the immersive experience.
Already well-versed in the medium of dioramas, Nix furthered her expertise after reading a book on the construction of museum dioramas. It was then that she decided to make her own.
“The real fun for me is making these faux museum dioramas whose real life intent is to be accurate and factual in what it displays and then purposefully get the science wrong,” Nix said.
After hearing a gallery owner proclaim that black and white photography was dead, she became determined to do a project in black and white.
“It was only after conceiving of the museum idea did the two projects seem to make sense together,” Nix said. “I liked the idea of making this body of work seem vintage, and black and white would be perfect for that.”
Nix made the tabletop-sized dioramas in Unnatural History in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment, using wood, foam, plastic, paper, and the occasional store-bought plastic animal. Her desire is to create the worlds that she photographs, rather than going out and finding existing ones.
Unnatural History will be on display from April 19 through Aug. 3, 2014, and is free with regular museum admission.