For nearly 90 years, the Academy’s realistic animal habitat scenes have captivated generations of visitors. In 2018, two of the oldest and rarest of these dioramas are undergoing a total renovation for the first time. And the public can watch the action unfold.
This spring and summer, conservators and artists will clean and renovate every inch of the beautiful Takin and Gorilla wildlife scenes. New lighting and labels will be installed; peels and cracks in the background paintings will be repaired; layers of dust will be removed; drooping tree branches will be propped; curled leaves will be replaced; and in a few instances errors will be corrected.
Visitors will be able to peer through large viewing windows into the temporary workspaces and sometimes talk with the workers. This is a rare opportunity to witness the process involved in cleaning and renovating these historic works of art and science that constitute the backbone of a natural history museum and are so much a part of Philadelphia’s natural history museum, which is the oldest institution of its kind in the Americas.
Conservators, artists, taxidermists, and lighting experts will work in the dioramas on and off throughout the year. Large viewing windows will allow visitors to see the disassembled dioramas and monitor the progress.
We’re filming and photographing the whole process and you can follow along on our social media channels and the Academy Blog.
Here is some background to help you understand what the dioramas are all about. Most of all, we want you to enjoy your visit to the Academy both during the renovations and once they are complete.
Collected: Brooke Dolan II of the Dolan West China Expedition, 1931-32
Diorama installed: 1935
The Scene: In the moody scene, four takins are grazing in a misty cloud forest surrounded by lush rhododendron, orchid, spruce and fern plants
Thank you! The renovation of this diorama is being funded through a generous gift from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.
When an Academy botanist compared the plant models in the diorama with notes in the archives, he found that two types of fern did not belong there. They are being removed.
Pronunciation: Takin rhymes with rockin’ or say TOCK in.
Common Name: Sichuan or Tibetan Takin
Scientific Name: Budorcas taxicolor tibetana
Where it lives: Forested valleys to rocky, grass covered alpine zones in west-central China
Average size: Male 660–770 pounds; Female 528–616 pounds
Lifespan: 16–18 years in wild, 20 years in captivity
It eats: Plants, mostly grasses, herbs, bamboo shoots, leaves of shrubs and trees.
Behavior: Sichuan takins are gregarious and live in herds, which is relatively uncommon for forest-dwelling ungulates. Body language and displays such as threatening postures are important for communication among groups. They are excellent climbers on steep slopes but slow moving.
Role in Ecosystem: Potential predators are the Asiatic back bear, common leopard, and wolf. They are share habitat with giant pandas, but are not thought to eat bamboo much, so not direct food competitors.
Collected: George Vanderbilt Expedition in 1934 to what is now the Central African Republic
Diorama installed: 1938
The Scene: The scene depicts three male Western Lowland Gorillas in a lush tropical central African forest.
Thank you! The renovation of this diorama is being funded by generous gifts from Lucille Vanderbilt Pate and the Vandy Charitable Foundation.
A model of an unidentified plant with dull berries turns out to represent the Marble Berry Plant famous for its sparkling blue berries, which are among the brightest biological substances in nature. Artists will give them a good touch-up.
Common Name: Western lowland gorilla
Scientific Name: Gorilla gorilla gorilla
Where it lives: Lowland tropical forests of central Africa
Average size: Male 300-600 pounds; Female 150-300 pounds
Lifespan: 16–35 years in wild, 50 years in captivity
It eats: Mostly fruit, leaves and other plant parts; some also dine on termites and other small insects
Behavior: Gorillas spend most of their time on the ground but will climb trees to forage for food, rest and sleep. Females and young seem to climb trees more often than males. Each day they build sleeping nests out of tree branches and foliage, either on the ground or sometimes in a tree. They sleep at night.
Role in Ecosystem: They eat a wide variety of fruits and plants and are major seed dispersers in forests, playing an essential role in botanical structure and composition.
Conservation Status: Critically endangered largely due to hunting and habitat loss from the logging industry.
How do you know what the scene looked like when the animals were collected?
Most of our dioramas were created in the 1930s through the 1960s. On all of the expeditions that were commissioned to assemble material for the dioramas, artists and naturalists kept very careful records of what they found. Those records are in our archives. Scrapbooks were made of the individual plants that were identified. Photographs were taken and drawings were made so that the area, whether it be in Africa, Asia, North America, could be reconstructed as close to the original scene as possible.
What makes the diorama paintings look 3D?
In order to convey a vast landscape in a very small space, artists had to create the illusion of great depth and elevation. Curved walls, foreshortening techniques, and clever tricks of every kind were used to achieve it.
Are the animals real?
Our dioramas are highly accurate depictions of real places in the world. The animals in them lived about 90 years ago in the real-life scene depicted. The real animals were collected and taken to Philadelphia where they were preserved by taxidermy. Some of the rocks or soil in the scenes may be from the original site, but most of the plants were painstakingly handmade by artists. The artists relied on detailed notes and photographs made by the original expedition.
What are the animals stuffed with?
They’re not really stuffed the way you might think. The gorilla is a good example. When the gorilla died, sketches and anatomical measurements were immediately made. The skin was then carefully removed and sent to a taxidermist’s studio. Based on the field measurements and the gorilla’s own skeleton,the taxidermist sculpted a a clay figureof the original 550-pound gorilla.Plaster was applied over the clay in large sections (called a mold) and the clay was discarded. The taxidermist applied wet papier-mache to the inside of the plaster mold and let it dry. The paper mache cast was gently freed—giving the taxidermist a strong, lightweight model of the gorilla’s body. ( The gorilla’s skin was cemented to the model, and wrinkles and veins were worked in carefully by the taxidermist.
What can dioramas tell us about habitats around the world?
Dioramas tell stories of exploration, exotic wilderness, conservation, artistry, and evolution, preserving a snapshot of a specific location at a recorded time. The intense documentation that goes into them enables researchers to track changes over time in biodiversity and habitat due to climate change and human encroachment.. We can trace a rich history of each place by comparing the habitat in the diorama to what we find in that part of the world today. Which animals and plants still exist? What has changed and why?
Want to learn more? Check out this blog post, featuring a Q&A with Senior Director of Exhibits and Public Spaces Jennifer Sontchi about dioramas.