• Botany Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    The Botanical Dioramas of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Botany Hall is situated in a corner of the second floor of the CMNH, accessible through the North American Wildlife section. Inside, seven window dioramas depict seven different biomes of the United States. In each, a richly painted curved wall supports a highly detailed three-dimensional scene, in which every individual leaf, stem, insect wing, and bit of moss is hand crafted and botanically accurate. 

    The complexity of these dioramas and the wonder they were meant to inspire is somewhat lost on many of the people who enter the hall I think.  If one happens to read the signage indicating the number of human hours required to create these, and how much information is embedded in every single detail, some sense of the uniqueness and specificity of these objects sinks in.  However, museum audiences are accustomed now to flashy screens that move when they touch them, to the backlit, the monumental and the loud.  The impressiveness of these dioramas takes a little longer to see than much of what modern museums do.

    I don’t think this would have been so for audiences when they were made.  Otto and Hanne Von Feuhrer created the first five dioramas in the 1920s and 30s.  Otto was primarily responsible for the backgrounds and overall design, and Hanne made the individual specimens.  Their work was based on field expeditions to collect specimens, which either were models for flowers and plants in wax and paper, or were preserved themselves as part of the display. Otto Jennings, Curator of Botany, conceived a broad vision for a hall that as a whole showed how different levels of heat and moisture lead to distinct environments.  Each diorama, or “group,” as they were more often called, is conceived as a unified whole, in which all parts work together, both aesthetically and as a natural environment. In the 1960s the Von Fuehrers were assisted by Elizabeth Niedringhaus to create a sixth diorama, and Neidringhaus then took over and worked with Curator of Botany Dorothy Pearth to craft two more, with the help of a faster techniques of her own development and a team of volunteers.  Pearth and Niedringhaus strove to continue to complete Jennings' vision, committing themselves to his interest in helping Pittsburgh viewers to understand how these plants relate to them and their own lives.

    The dioramas are examples of a specific form of art and museum display of a past era.  The backgrounds are carefully extended past the edges of the windows, past the peripheral vision allowed to viewer by the diorama frame.  Special attention is paid to the edges where the two-dimensional meets the three-dimensional, and certain visual devices are employed to make a seamless transition and enhance illusion, such as strategically placed plants or rocks, play with light and shadow, and repetition of specific specimens. Every single item, color, and texture, as well as a landscape background, is allowed in only for its precise accuracy as to what would be found in nature, in many cases what was actually found in nature by the artists, for its contribution to a “complete” and representative picture of that particular biome, as well as for its ability to contribute to a harmonious aesthetic whole. The individual crafted plants are part of a tradition of botanical drawing and glass sculpture that goes back to the 19th century. The achieved effect speaks to a yearning for a version of nature that can be harnessed and dominated by human eyes and hands.

    While the Von Feuhrers are mentioned on an explanatory panel, Niedringhaus’s authorship is invisible, as are Jennings, Pearth, Clifford Morrow who was exhibition designer in the 60s and 70s, and numerous others who assisted in these projects.  The hall’s construction has been largely supported over the years by local and state garden clubs, and it should be noted the key ways in which this has been a women’s space, both in the sense of the empowerment of women as leaders and participants in scientific institutions, and in the sense of their sequestering to subjects deemed appropriately feminine.

    A group of us from the History of Art and Architecture department visited Botany Hall in March, and had a productive discussion about approaching these objects from an art historical or museum studies point of view.  It was clear that many of the issues and discourses art historians care about – the politics of display, representation as pathway to knowledge, the lives and agencies of objects – could be brought to bear really fruitfully on Botany Hall.

    Curator of Botany Cynthia Morton and Director of Exhibition Experience Becca Shreckengast are committed to preserving Botany Hall and finding ways for modern audiences to appreciate the amount of information that is contained within them and the ways in which this specific type of display contributes to enjoyable learning.  My interest is unearthing the archival story of how they were created and how they were expected to operate in terms of visual knowledge. As usual with scientific display and imagery, I think an art historical approach could bring some much needed elucidation as to what is going on.  What are the aspects of this history that are invisible, and need to be filled out? How should the dioramas be situated in the context of American museum display as a whole? How do formal, sensory, or object-based concerns intertwine with pedagogical and scientific ones?

    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Debating Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work