Windows To Nature: Minnesota’s Dioramas
Featuring realistic foregrounds and painted mural backdrops, the Bell Museum’s world-renowned wildlife dioramas uniquely allow visitors to imagine themselves in various natural settings. With their depictions of actual places and real plants and animals, the dioramas have introduced generations of Minnesotans to the variety of natural habitats in our state.
(woman) "Windows to Nature Minnesota's Dioramas"
is a TPT Partnerships coproduction
with the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota.
[marimba plays in bright rhythm]
(Steve Quinn) For generations, the Bell Museum
has served as an important front door
to the people of Minnesota.
Literally thousands of young people have come through
as part of growing up in Minnesota.
(Barbara Coffin) The dioramas are a window in time.
They really present all sorts of opportunities for us
in interpreting Minnesota's natural environment.
Most of us will not be able to visit all of these places.
Every corner of Minnesota is depicted here.
But we should all care about all of these places.
(Aminae Kazemi) I think the dioramas are great for observation.
There are so many small details in the dioramas that
unless you are actually paying attention and observing
and looking at them, you're not going to see.
(Don Luce) The great thing about our diorama,
it combines art and science in such interesting ways.
(Sue Galatowitsch) These aren't going to have less value over time,
they're going to have more value.
(Don Luce) These dioramas are
amazing works of art and cultural history.
We're now moving them to a new building.
They need to be starting to address
the needs for future generations.
It's an important step to preserve memory.
I think that this particular project is invaluable.
[piano plays softly]
(female narrator) The Bell Museum is Minnesota's official natural history museum
and houses over 1 million specimens
from around the state and the world.
The Bell also has one of the premier
natural history diorama collections in the nation,
dating back to the beginning of the art form.
(Ford Bell) It's absolutely astounding
That the legislature created
a museum of natural history in 1872
14 years after Minnesota became a state.
They understood that in 100 years,
in 200 years time and beyond that
that our natural history in our state was going to be important.
(Barbara Coffin) In the early days,
scientists were identifying, inventorying,
and making collections to really understand
what is the natural history of Minnesota.
As time evolved, and you come
into the early 1900s,
scientists started to look at the natural world
more as a system and communities
and interdependencies and interactions.
And it's at that time, interpretation in a museum
moved from showing objects to actually
clustering them together into habitat dioramas.
(narrator) The Bell Museum has occupied 4 buildings
on the University of Minnesota campus over time,
including its long-time home on University Avenue
built with the help of General Mills founder James Ford Bell.
(Ford Bell) It was
my grandfather's interest in natural history
and the importance of it being accessible
which led to his longtime support of the Bell Museum.
(Don Luce) the effort really took off
when Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts joined the museum.
He was a physician but also an ornithologist,
and he retired from his medical practice
to take over the museum.
And he really appreciated the sort of public outreach
and really spurred on this development of the dioramas.
(Sue Leaf) Roberts was interested in educating the general public
and specifically children on the wonders of the natural world.
In the dioramas were one way he did this.
He'd seeing the dioramas
at the American Museum of Natural History in New York,
and they were more or less cutting edge
for how you would teach the public about natural history.
I think his idea was
that if people knew what was out there,
they would value it and then work to save it.
(narrator) Dioramas emerged at roughly the same time
in both Europe and America in the 1890s.
Their history is interwoven with the development
of wildlife conservation
and environmental awareness.
(Don Luce) Before dioramas, museums were really very different places.
They had started as basically cabinets for specimens,
cabinets of curiosity-- very massive collections of cabinets
full of specimens, full of birds,
full of jars of pickled fish
full of specimens of rocks and minerals, etc.
But dioramas really represent
a very different kind of view of nature.
Rather than looking at individual specimens
of each species for each type of rock or mineral.
This is an attempt to put all that back together,
put it into some kind of a natural context.
Some of these early diorama developers
like Carl Akeley and Bruno Liljefors in Sweden.
many were artists, and they were
attracted to the beauty of nature
And they were hoping, of course,
to attract a greater public interest in nature.
(Rob Silberman) The diorama, a completely artificial form
that's meant to be completely realistic
that is convincing as realism.
So you have all the tricks of the trade,
and you have all the skill of the people creating it.
The experience of viewing a diorama
is really like nothing else.
It's not a simple single point perspective.
It might be ideally viewed
from the very center of the glass at a particular height,
but the diorama has to be designed for people
who walk along the glass and view it from one side,
then go to the other side and peek around.
So a really well-designed diorama, you lose your sense
of where the foreground ends and the background begins.
Our Lake Pepin diorama has the sandbar
that the point juts out into the painting.
It's just a continuation of the foreground.
(Rob Silberman) The illusion is of realism
that the animals are alive, that the place is real,
that that space extends as far as you think it does.
It has to be a convincing illusion, although, as we know,
it's just a small, little room,
brilliantly constructed, brilliantly lit.
When you start looking for it, you realize
how clever and skilled the creators are.
(narrator) In the early 1900s, dioramas were being created
in museums in Milwaukee, Chicago, and at
the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The American Museum shares a connection with the Bell Museum
through the work of diorama artist Francis Lee Jaques.
(Don Luce) Many people consider the person who really took dioramas to
the highest level of development was Francis Lee Jaques.
And he was actually from Minnesota.
A very interesting character who then spent
a large part of his career in New York City
at the American Museum of Natural History.
Then in the 1940s and '50s came back here
to the Bell Museum of Natural History
and did really our classic dioramas here.
(Steve Quinn) Francis Lee Jaques
came to the American Museum in 1924.
Jaques was always exploring methods and techniques
To facilitate the illusion of re-creating nature.
In "The Olympic Forest," Jaques came up with the idea
of applying mirrors on the ceiling above the trees
so the vertical lines the trees
are carried up into the ceiling surface.
Jaques also, very early on in his career,
was sent to the Bahamas.
The diorama that they were assigned to create
is very unique that it is a 2-story diorama.
(narrator) In the 1940s, the Bell Museum
began the construction of a new building.
Director T.S. Roberts sought out Jaques
to paint the backgrounds for its newly commissioned dioramas.
(Steve Quinn) I think one sees at the Bell Museum
It's at the Bell Museum where Jaques really depicts
the places and the habitats
and environments that he passionately loves himself.
(Rob Silberman) One of the unique things about the Bell Museum dioramas is
they all are Minnesota scenes, and almost all of them
are actual places in the state of Minnesota.
So within walking distance you can go from
the North Woods, from the shore of Lake Superior
to places within the Twin Cities metro area.
A lot of people come, and one of the questions
they want to know how these dioramas are made.
Probably a good example to start with would be the Wolf Diorama.
One of the first things they would do is visit the site.
The foreground preparator
in this case was Walter Breckenridge,
and Francis Lee Jaques traveled to the North Shore.
Jaques make sketches, took photographs,
Breckenridge made molds of the rocks, collected plants,
and brought all these back to the museum.
(Sue Leaf) The two of them would go together
out to the site where the diorama was set.
They spent a weekend out there, no longer, two days or so.
Then they would come back,
and Lee would start working on his canvas.
(narrator) Jaques painted the Bell dioramas
when he was at the height of his career as a diorama artist.
In the Cascade River diorama,
Jaques used a unique painting technique--
underpainting a section of the background in black and white,
then adding oil colors on top
to create deep shadows and high contrast.
From there, the foreground work was added.
(Terry Chase) Back in the mid '70s I worked for a while
with some of the people that actually built the dioramas.
John Jarosz was the taxidermist at that time,
and he did most of the foregrounds for these dioramas.
So I had a chance to work with him.
(John Jarosz) One diorama, sometimes the large ones,
actually, from the time of planning to completion
took a year or better.
And all the time, doing all the plant work,
The taxidermy, the painting, the construction of everything.
In most cases, they used real branches and real trees.
Many of the flowers were made out of paper.
In my early training, I was actually trained to make
botanical models out of beeswax.
Back in the day, 50 years ago,
that's the way we made plant models.
(Terry Chase) Every leaf, every plant in these dioramas
is accurate and identifiable to the species.
So incredible amount of detail
and time-consuming effort went into these.
(John Jarosz) I enjoyed every bit of it.
I got so engrossed with those habitat groups
that sometimes I forgot to go home actually.
I really loved, love doing this work.
I was blessed, I guess.
(narrator) The Bell dioramas have served as valuable time capsules
of the state's natural history.
Visits to the actual sites today
provide important environmental lessons.
(Jennifer Menken) The dioramas were done as a window
at a very particular point in time.
Some of those places exist, some of those places
don't really exist in the same way anymore.
(Sue Galatowitsch) The dioramas are an interesting opportunity
to really sort of see the place as the artist saw it.
This diorama depicts the Minnesota River,
and so the diorama shows an area
that right now is very near the Mall of America.
You can see a lot of interesting things here
with regard to changes due to invasives.
It'll be interesting to watch this place over time.
(Don Luce) You can then use them
as sort of a yardstick to measure change over time.
Every time we've gone back we've been shocked at how--
sort of unpredictable changes.
(Jennifer Menken) For example, the Maple Basswood Forest,
that diorama originally was built
to represent like, the first week of May,
so when the very early spring flowers are coming out.
That's not happening-- almost the first week of April now,
so even in the space of the 55, 60 years
since that diorama has been built,
that's how much the climate has changed.
(James Forester) What we see in the diorama is a scene from early fall.
This is a period known as the rut for the moose,
it's when the males and females are mating.
The impacts of climate change on northern Minnesota
are through time going to be quite dramatic.
Composition of the forest is expected to change radically.
Will the moose be there in 50 years?
(Aminae Kazemi) I think it's very interesting for people to see
how much we have impacted the world, and to see what
the natural world looks like or did look like in certain areas.
I think with some people it really resonates
that we have made a really big impact,
and in some ways good, and in some ways they're not so good.
(Sue Galatowitsch) These aren't going to have less value over time,
they're going to have more value because of their beauty,
because they've had a lasting effect,
and because as we move forward,
I think we'll see even more insight
and be evermore attentive to maintaining a sort of
an awareness or baseline of our environmental conditions.
(narrator) Recently the state of Minnesota
made a long-term commitment to the future
by building a state-of-the-art facility
for the Bell Museum and its diorama collection.
(Barbara Coffin) While the Bell Museum is moving to a new building,
it's bittersweet in that we are leaving our home,
our art moderne building of close to 75 years.
Moving the dioramas is a big deal.
It's not an easy process.
These are priceless art objects,
and they weren't necessarily built to be moved.
(Don Luce) We have these remarkable works of art, cultural icons,
that are very elaborate, very big, and very heavy
that we have to move, and have them end up
being just as beautiful and just as amazing
in the new building.
(Tom Amble) One of the reasons the Bell Museum's dioramas
are as preserved as they are is
there's no way to get in and out of them.
The piece of glass in front of them actually seals them shut.
When we wanted to get ready to move the dioramas
the first thing we had to do was remove that glass.
So the very first day, we jumped right in.
(Terry Chase) When we started taking the diorama foregrounds apart,
we obviously wanted to photograph in detail
the original dioramas so that we could
put everything back in the same position.
(man) This is number 27.
(Terry Chase) Then what we did when we started taking the plants out,
we actually assigned a number to each plant,
and as we pulled the plant out,
we tagged each plant with a number,
and we put a corresponding number on the photograph,
so we have a complete key to the location
of each element in the exhibit,
and we can put it back precisely the way it was.
(Shannon Larson) They pulled them out of the ground for them,
they handed the plants to one of us,
then we secured it into a foam pallet.
It was so fun to be so close and to be able to see the detail.
(Terry Brown) The trees had to come out in pieces.
They used real trees with real branches.
(man) Cut right across here so they can bring it in in 2...
(Terry Brown) So the branches all had to be disassembled and crated.
(Shannon Larson) And it went from there, we cleared out all of the
plant and animal artifacts from the dioramas as well as
a lot of the dirt and the brush on the ground and saved it.
(man) Then lift this up.
This is an interesting way that they made the water here,
because you can see they made that out of metal.
These are sheets of metal.
Ready, ready? 1, 2, 3...
(Tom Amble) When we removed the diorama foregrounds,
we had to take them out in sections,
because they were not built to be moved.
I was quite pleased when we pulled the Wolf Diorama apart.
(Shannon Larson) The first thing we had to do was figure out,
how do we take the wolf out,
and how do we take the rock formation out?
The rocks are really impressive, they are all plaster.
You'd almost never guess.
(Tom Amble) Anything that's 3-dimensional is fragile,
whether it's the animals, whether it's the birds
So the number one thing is that, preserving them as they are.
(Shannon Larson) I never expected to be able to tell people, well today,
I moved a giant moose, or I vacuumed a tree,
or I washed the leaves=--
which are some of the things I've been doing.
(Terry Chase) We have successfully removed the foregrounds,
preserved the plant models,
and everything is working like clockwork.
On this one you can see all the gray.
(narrator) The diorama taxidermy specimens had to be cleaned,
and many had to be recolored
due to long-term exposure to light and dust.
(Tom Amble) A lot of the animals and birds were terribly faded.
And with the new lighting in the dioramas,
there won't be infrared or ultraviolet light anymore
which will maintain colors much better.
So he's restored the legs.
(narrator) While restoration continued, museum staff prepared
for the project's biggest challenge--
moving the background murals.
But it's really all ready-- we're literally ready now
to put a hole in the wall.
(Tom Amble) When we knew we wanted to move these dioramas,
we knew they would not fit
through any exits existing in the building.
We knew we had to create that exit, or that egress.
The first obstacle there was lowering
Or shrinking or cutting the background
or the back wall to a specific size
to get past the beams that were in the way.
(Barbara Coffin) We had a group of art conservationists come in
to evaluate the backdrop paintings
and to develop a technique for both cleaning the backdrop
as well as moving the art piece without damaging it.
[bass, guitar, & mandolin play in bright rhythm]
(Megan Emery) It was known that the murals
could not leave the building in one piece.
They had to be cut.
The method that we came up with was physically
remove the canvas from the wall in only a 2-inch strip.
Sort of making a T-shaped section,
dividing the mural into 3 pieces.
(narrator) Once the paint strips were removed,
cuts were made in the mural walls,
separating each mural into 3 components.
(Tom Amble) To move the dioramas out of the building,
we have to build a metal structure
that cradles and captures the entire background.
(Luke Boehnke) We had to build a fairly extensive steel armature
to support the mass of this wall.
The walls in their entirety, fully assembled
weighed anywhere from 6,000 to about 8,000 pounds.
It required a certain amount of structure
to maintain the shape of the walls and hold them in place.
(Tom Amble) Then there will be a hole
on the outside of the building on both floors.
Each of those dioramas will go
out of the hole into the building
onto an outside platform.
From the outside platform they will get craned
onto the back of a truck, then driven over to the new building,
then craned back into the building.
The glue that held this canvas to the wall
actually gave us the ability to move them
because the canvas and the glue
provided the tensile strength for them to be able
to hold together during the whole process.
The actual cutting, the lowering,
and the trucking to the new site--
it was literally the glue that made it possible.
(Tom Amble) Once the dioramas were craned off the truck,
all we had to do was roll them into their new spaces.
(Don Luce) And once they came over into this new building
the challenge, of course, was to get these back
exactly the way they came out.
They had to get these sections perfectly aligned,
and they would adjust that wall
a little bit up, a little in, a little out,
until they got them exactly the right distance apart,
then they would weld new angle iron to the backside
to lock them in place.
(Megan Emery) They had filled in with heavy-duty epoxy
the actual physical cutline to the wall.
We then came and filled that and made it level
to the original wall shape with spackle.
Once that was sanded, we test-fit the strips
to make sure they fit in perfectly.
So we were able to put those strips back in
exactly where they had been, lining up
with the original canvas that was left on the wall.
It did leave a small gap along the top and bottom edge
which was then filled in,
and then we were able to paint just that line,
tone it individually with little brushes to make sure
that it matched the design perfectly on top and bottom.
The entire process of working on these dioramas
has really opened our eyes to detail.
It is amazing to be able to step and be so close,
and literally we have seen
every square inch of every one of these murals.
And during that process you really gain a new appreciation
for someone's technique as an artist.
(Don Luce) When you're peering through the glass and seeing them,
you are just seeing the top surface,
you're seeing the final layer.
Going through the layers, going deep down in,
and underneath and behind,
doing the work we had to do to get them apart
to safely move them, we definitely had an appreciation
of how complex it was to build them,
the different methods that were used, the different detail.
[piano plays softly]
(Barbara Coffin) I think the staff here at the Bell Museum
are very excited to be a part of creating
a museum for the 21st century,
creating a place where we can learn about the past,
where we've come from
and have that inform where we go in the future.
(Don Luce) This move really gave us this opportunity
to completely rethink that visitor experience.
Can we completely rethink how these dioramas
are going to be presented, arranged,
integrated with new exhibits?
We really wanted to create a sense
of people going on a journey
in this new museum.
(Ford Bell) We want people at every stage of their life
To find something in this museum that will inspire them,
that will move them to take action.
(Barbara Coffin) We face major issues
of how we live on the planet in a sustainable manner.
And it is our hope that in the new museum, we can
offer people a window into understanding the environment,
understanding our natural world
so that we all live a lifestyle
in harmony with the natural world.
[mandolin, piano, & violin play softly]
(woman) "Windows to Nature Minnesota's Dioramas"
Is a TPT Partnerships coproduction
with the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota.