Fact or fiction? test your eyes.

Jaguar diorama, AMNH, New York.

This is a brief episode, following on from a previous write-up about my experience at the explorer's club, the paintings I found there, and their incredible application to the dioramas of the Natural history Museum. You can click here to refer back to it.

For those who have actually witnessed the animal displays known as "dioramas" in the AMNH, you probably were as impressed as I was at the sheer skill and sophistication of the visual illusions. I can't think of a better word than illusion: As I stood there, just feet away from the animals and the adjacent painted walls, I had a hard time finding the frontier between and fiction and reality. It's even trickier when looking at a photograph from a single view point, without the luxury of walking right up to it.

To share this experience, I have devised a somewhat basic, but effective way to illustrate exactly what I'm referring to. I present here a selection of 7 dioramas, that are so exceptionally composed, that the lines are blurred between what is fake and what is real.

But first, let me do a re-cap on the process: I illustrate here the original paintings made on site; the making a maquette out in the field; the application of this work at the museum of Natural History.

Original sketch from life. William Leigh.

Carl Akeley recruited William Leigh to paint with him in Africa, in 1926 & 1928. On site, while Leigh was painting, Akeley would create maquettes to prepare the compositions of the dioramas. All this preparatory team work would then be applied back home, at the museum, to create beautifully atmospheric and convincing dioramas.

In this Klipspringer group, the lighting and the background painting is so well modulated with the foreground to allow an illusion of space. In the picture on the right, I have indicated the frontier that initially can be difficult to distinguish in the picture on the left.

We start with an easy one, the Bighorn sheep of North America. If you can't observe the frontier, deduction can probably help to define the frontier between reality and fiction. Take a moment to guess where that line could be. Below, I indicate where the painting begins, and where the set-up ends.

The Oryx antelopes are indigenous to the arid areas of eastern Africa, and the Arabian peninsular.  Aesthetically pleasing with their patterned faces and elegant horns.

Particularly bunched together, the Oryx obstruct much of the background, making it difficult to decipher where the line could be. Even the grass in the foreground seems difficult to distinguish from painted grass.

The Plains diorama depicts the vast expanse of the Serengeti, an ecosystem area that covers parts of Tanzania and Kenya. Below we can see William Leigh's original painting on site, and we can easily recognise the iconic Acacia tree.

The border between fiction and reality is usually masked by a row of tall grasses and animals, while an actual sculpted tree mirrors the painted tree in the background. This is one of the techniques of affirming the background's realism, by offering a real reference in the foreground to confuse fact and fiction.

The black Rhinoceros group are set against a vast receding landscape, depicting the mountains of Mt Kenya.  A relatively tricky scene to find the frontier, especially considering the shady atmosphere of the foreground, compressing the contrasts.

The brown Bears of Alaska, set in a dramatic landscape, certainly plays tricks on your eyes. We see water on the right, and at first we might presume it's real. But wold the museum really invest in that sort of space, allowing the diorama stretching back at least 15 metres?

We find a line separating the backdrop from the animals, grass and sand. The fish in the foreground is real, but the water and the Otter at the water's edge are painted.

I think one of the winners for a complete illusion, is the scene of the Osborne Caribou out of British Colombia, Canada. Having one of the animals turn and look to the horizon is a clever trick, often used in dioramas. Once we believe this animal is looking somewhere, we are fooled into believing that there is an existing space to be looking into. 

These are just a few examples out of the vast collection you can see at the natural history museum, that stretches across the 1st and 2nd floors of the AMNH.

Here are a few other dioramas worth seeing:

American Bison

Canadian Lynx

Musk Ox

The Jaguar

The Wolf

For more information about this tradition of dioramas at the Natural History Museum of New York, you can read about the Treasures of the past that prompted these write-ups.