Earth Day 2014: What the Field Museum’s Dioramas are Teaching Kids about Conservation

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Chicago is home to one of the most treasured natural history museums in the world. And the Field Museum is a magnet for well over a million visitors a year, half of them children. Since tomorrow is Earth Day, what better time for Tom Skilling’s story of the Field Museum’s historic dioramas, and what they’re teaching our kids about protecting the planet.

“When you stand in front of any of these dioramas, it’s an immersive experience, “ says Larry Heaney, who is the Field Museum’s curator of mammals. “You’re diving into another part of the world. It’s not just the animals themselves, but the animals in their natural habitat, that allows you to develop a feeling for what it would be like to be one of those animals.” Heaney is a mammalogist, a researcher, and a huge fan of the Field Museum’s dioramas, those giant glass displays that hold the stories of the world’s most exotic animals.

“This is the first full scale diorama that was ever done. It was the first time that most people in Chicago were able to see what’s now one of the most common large mammals anywhere in the United States.” The “Four Seasons of the White Tailed Deer” diorama, shows the evolution of a deer family through winter, spring, summer, and fall. “If there’s such a thing as a Rembrandt in a natural history museum, we have them here. You can see every muscle on the neck of the deer. You can see the blood vessels. And that set the standard for everything that followed at every other museum globally.”

Heaney says that when it was created by sculptor and taxidermist Carl Akeley in 1902, white tailed deer were almost extinct in the Midwest due to intense hunting. “Seeing how fabulous these animals are is going to promote an interest in protecting them and having them around for people to see.” It’s just one example of a conservation success story and the role dioramas can play. Third graders from Peirce Elementary School in Chicago had been studying India, so they came to the Field Museum to see the mammals from Asia. “There are some animals that are going extinct and some ocean animals that are going to be extinct and that is bad.”

Their teacher, Shelley Terzian explains how the dioramas help her explain the importance of conservation. “We actually did our own mini-dioramas in the classroom on India before coming here. So, it was a great way to prepare for what they were going to see today, and then transfer over such concepts as animals’ extinction, conservation.” Her class was happy to be there. “I was excited about seeing the dioramas. And also Sue over there.” Mammalogist Heaney says kids are bombarded with so many digital images in HD and 3D. But it’s hard to experience scale from a screen. “When you come here, you’re seeing the real thing. And really see them up close.

You can’t do that in the wild and you can’t do that on a screen.” Artist in Residence Peggy Macnamara can often be seen painting the vast collections at the Field Museum. “I spent 20 years painting from the dioramas. They were Nature Channel but held still so they’re like an artist’s dream.” She says animals and their habitat go hand in hand. “I’ve had the opportunity once to paint a background for one. Becoming aware of just the magic that’s going on here is the way into serious conservation efforts.”

“We’re at a crucial time in earth history, says mammalogist Heaney. If we can give people a better sense of the wonders of the natural world that inevitably is going to lead to better conservation activities.” Perhaps this 3rd grader says it best. “I want animals to keep living.”

What better message for Earth Day? You can share this story and find additional resources by clicking these links. There’s also a photo gallery of black and white photos showing the original diorama artists at work.  So please check that out as well.


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