Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dollhouses and Dioramas: The First Museum 2.0 ?

I'm doing some work with the Nassau County Museum of Art on their funky free-standing annex building they have called the Tee Ridder Miniatures Museum. (I'll report on some of the design modifications and "tweaks" we're coming up to make what is now a bit of a "fussy" collection more visitor-friendly, in a future posting.)

For background, Tee Ridder was a lady who collected and displayed miniature rooms (what most people would call dollhouse rooms) and the Tee Ridder Museum is entirely devoted to these miniature rooms, a "million dollar dollhouse" (actually a very large scale model of a castle) and related displays. Even the gift shop sells dollhouse furniture and related "miniatures" paraphenalia!

Working on this project got me thinking again about the incredible drawing power that miniature environments, and on the opposite end of the scale, dioramas, have on visitors.

Both of these "old school" exhibit techniques are for the most part dead art forms.

[UPDATE: As several people have rightfully commented and emailed me, museums are still creating dioramas and immersive diorama environments. Take for example the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Sorry for the hyperbole --- please resume reading your regularly scheduled blog posting...]

Preparing classic wildlife dioramas was never humane (killing animals deliberately for display would rightfully never be tolerated today) and the people with the esoteric skills needed to create these displays have largely vanished as well. Most natural history museums no longer employ (or can afford to employ!) staff taxidermists and artists like the master Carl Akeley (Check out this NY Times article about the "New" Way of Making a Stuffed Animal Lifelike from 1917!)

Leaving all that aside, I still marvel at how visitors will become completely absorbed in finding little details like a miniature box of Cornflakes in the dollhouse kitchen at The Long Island Children's Museum, or the hovering dragonflies in a pond diorama at The Field Museum in Chicago. Why do these anachronistic gems still entrall people, even within the context of museums filled with multi-media marvels and cool hands-on gizmos?

I think part of the answer lies in an appreciation, if not awe, of the art, and craft, involved in creating these facsimile worlds. But I think another aspect of the power of dioramas and miniature scenes is the ability for every visitor to somehow mentally insert themselves into these artificial worlds and to create their own stories and realities within.

And in the end, being able to find personal, emotional connections with objects and displays is still one of the most important, and singular, strengths of museums.

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  1. Hi Paul, Dead art form? The diorama is alive and well as means of exhibit communication, albeit, eclipsed by a lot of sexy high tech whiz bang that just doesn't deliver the same depth of experience. Today we are surrounded with multi media marvels and cool hands on gizmos at work, in the kitchen, living room and everywhere with our Ipods, cellphones, laptops and the multitude of game players out there. The 3d snapshot of a well done diorama can be astonishing. The form has changed somewhat from the old school "Window on a world" to a more inclusive open environment experience. When done well it is less hard to suspend one's disbelief and enter the alternate reality than merely staring at a screen does, (whether it is on a mirror or not) Spend a day at the Mashantucket Pequot museum in Ledyard CT to see what's posible with the art form. I have been fortunate enough to have been involved in the design and building of several lifesize dioramas and have all the esoteric skills needed. Also, animals are no longer killed for such displays, we filled and entire museum with roadkill taxidermy and highly detailed and accurate models. Check out my work at

    including very anachronistic painted murals, that deliver more reality than a wall size inkjet ever will.... but that's an argument for another day!


  2. Hi Frank,

    Thanks for correcting my blog-speak hyperbole!

    I'm glad there are still artists like yourself putting a "modern twist" on the "windows on the world" that dioramas provide.

  3. Hi Paul -

    We have done some research on early museum memories among Museum Advocates (people who love museums), and we are finding that seminal museum memories tend to revolve around things like dioramas at natural history museums, but also things like dollhouses at history-based museums. Our preliminary findings are that these types of exhibits may be rather important to the creation of Museum Advocates. We will be sharing more over the next few months . . . but yes, dollhouses and dioramas are Museum 2.0!

  4. Sometimes we museum people wonder if we're alone in our love of dioramas, but it seems that visitors do as well. My museum (the Florida Museum of Natural History) decided to build new dioramas when we constructed a new building and new permanent exhibits in the late 90s and early 2000s. Granted, these are immersive displays that allow visitors to walk through a full-scale scene (like the fabulous Pequot village), rather than the original notion of a habitat frozen behind glass. I like Frank's description of them as a more inclusive open environment experience. And after we built everything and opened the doors (well actually we let people come in to watch us paint murals and craft foregrounds), we did a summative study. Turns out visitors loved the dioramas best of all. An interestingly, if you look at time tracking data and compare it to what visitors reported as their "favorites" (the dioramas), it is clear that while these environments turned people on, they're spending more time in the more traditional exhibit galleries (objects, graphics, interactives). Where this was done best in our museum (combining dioramas and learning galleries), the stay-time was pretty amazing and feedback very positive. My take-home on this is that if an exhibit is well designed and combines immersive displays with more focused learning galleries, visitors have a great experience -- turned on by the dioramas and inspired to learn. So it seems indeed that it's not just us museum folks after all....