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Famous Museum Dioramas Will be Resealed Sept. 20

Total renovation reveals captivating details hidden for decades

PHILADELPHIA, September 19, 2018

The sun is shining again in the rain forest; you can see it in the patch of bright blue sky and the dappled, lush undergrowth where the gorillas now cast their own shadows.


You couldn’t see those shadows and sunlight before the thorough cleaning, relighting, repainting and reinterpreting of the gorilla habitat scene at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Now, seven months after the first thorough overhaul of that diorama and also the takin diorama, both will be resealed on Thursday, Sept. 20.


“The transformation is truly remarkable,” said Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper. “While these dioramas are treasured time capsules of artistry and adventure, they are actually more relevant today than ever. They depict not just exotic animals, but complex and delicate ecosystems.


“These beautiful scenes provide a means to showcase Academy science and to engage our visitors in conversations about our natural world,” Cooper said. “All of our dioramas depict real geographic areas, which, while still somewhat intact, are nearly all stressed by human activities, habitat loss and climate change.”


Both dioramas will have new labels by Nov. 1, including videos that invite visitors to explore more about the featured animals, plants and ecosystems depicted. These engaging new designs will help transport the visitors’ imagination to the Central African Republic and the Tibetan/Chinese border.


For nearly 90 years, the more than 30 dioramas at the Academy, the oldest natural history museum in the Americas, have captivated generations of visitors. Among the oldest, the gorilla was installed in 1938 and the takin in 1935, back when there was no Internet, television or mass world travel.


George Dante, head of Wildlife Preservations in Woodland Park, N.J., led a team of conservators, taxidermists, artists and Academy staff in the monumental effort to clean every inch of the glass-enclosed scenes, down to the tiniest rhododendron bud and animal eyeball. A couple scientific inaccuracies were also corrected, including the species of swallowtail butterfly in the gorilla diorama. In the takin diorama, a blue-colored flower that does not occur in that region was replaced with a realistic model of a lady slipper orchid.


The result is stunning.


“Because they were showing the ravages of time, this thorough cleaning really made for a dramatic restoration,” said Dante. “We removed a great deal of residue, and the fading on the animals has now been recolored so it’s bright and vibrant.”


Dante described the taxidermy by Louis Paul Jonas (1894–1971) as “some of the best in the world.”


“The quality is absolutely spectacular. It really captures the essence of the animals and is scientifically accurate,” said Dante, a celebrated taxidermist who also is at the top of his field.


Despite the comprehensive research and renovation involved, some puzzles will never be solved. The standing gorilla that is the centerpiece of the diorama was said to be the largest gorilla in the world when it was installed. Dante isn’t so sure about that. And when he was applying pigment to re-color the gorilla, he left areas on the back untouched so that future generations can see the work of the original taxidermist as well as Dante’s own handicraft.


About the Takin Diorama in Asian Hall


The takin (rhymes with rockin’) diorama opened in 1935 with animals and plants collected by the Dolan West China Expedition, 1931-32, to the base of the Himalayas, along the Tibetan/Chinese border. Takins are goat-antelope-like plant eaters. Their conservation status is “threatened” largely due to habitat loss, climate change, disturbance from tourism, hunting and disease. The renovation was funded by a generous gift by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.


About the Gorilla Diorama in African Hall


The gorilla diorama opened in 1938 with animals and plants collected by the George Vanderbilt Expedition of 1934 to what is now the Central African Republic. Their conservation status is “critically endangered” largely due to hunting for bushmeat and habitat loss from the logging industry. The renovation was funded by generous gifts from Lucille Vanderbilt Pate, the Vandy Charitable Foundation, and Barbara Oldenhoff of Philadelphia. Mrs. Pate of South Carolina is the daughter of the explorer George Vanderbilt.


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