Return of the Diorama

Dioramas – those landscaped displays with painted backdrops and posed, stuffed specimens – may have fallen out of fashion in museums, but in their day were strong ecological statements, writes archivist Vanessa Finney.

Lord Howe Island diorama

Lord Howe Island diorama
Photographer: Anthony Farr © Australian Museum

Imagine walking through a cramped display hall peering into dimly lit cabinets crowded with specimens, the whole room lit by skylights or flickering gaslights – that’s how most museums displayed their treasures in the 19th century.

But by the early 20th century, natural history museums were changing. They realised that to inspire and educate the public they needed to bring nature inside and show specimens as they would have appeared in real life.

The first attempts at such displays were simple, four-sided glass cases with posed specimens in a landscaped setting. From these developed the diorama – fully realised, three-dimensional scenes using real animal and plant specimens, painted backdrops and detailed foregrounds.

Developed in England, Germany and America, most famously at the Natural History Museum in New York, natural history dioramas displayed the diversity of habitats and the complexity of natural systems to museum visitors for the first time.


At the Australian Museum, the new technology of the diorama was adopted with great enthusiasm. In one of the first expeditions of its kind anywhere in the world, the Trustees dispatched a team to Lord Howe Island (long-studied by Museum scientists) in 1921 to collect materials and information for three new dioramas.

The expedition, funded by a number of prominent Sydney philanthropists and led by curator Allan McCulloch, set off by boat for the island, which lies some 800 kilometres to the northeast of Sydney.

McCulloch believed that the modern museum should be ‘… a place of entertainment and education … [displaying] the vagaries of nature, the relationship of everything around us, changing momentarily and all the time’. The new exhibits would also have an implicit conservation theme, showing ‘… whether we know it or not, we are all deeply concerned with everything nature has to show us’.

Over the coming weeks, the team of five left no part of Lord Howe unexplored in their search for authenticity and accuracy. They filmed, photographed, sketched and collected, bringing back numerous samples of animals, plants and rocks, including more than 100 birds.

A seabird-nesting diorama

For the largest of the dioramas (and the only one remaining at the Museum), the team travelled to the isolated and rugged Admiralty Islets, a few miles north of the main island and a favoured nesting site for seabirds.

There they collected more specimens and painstakingly documented the rocky habitat to ensure the new diorama would be a true-to-life window on nature.

Following the safe return of the team and their cargo to the Museum, the exhibition preparators began their work. Using photographs taken on the islands as a guide, they first built a wooden framework over which they stretched fine-wire gauze, to become the rock platform.

They covered this with a mixture of papier-mâché, cinders and plaster to produce the texture of the rocks, which artist Phyllis Clarke then coloured using materials from the field trip as a guide.

The heavy, cumbersome framework then had to be moved from the workshop to the Long Gallery on the ground floor of the Lewis Wing where the whole display was assembled. Specimens of the Sooty Tern, Sterna fuscata, and Masked Booby, Sula dactylatra, were placed on the bare rock platform, with Common Noddy, Anous stolidus, and Grey Ternlet, Procelsterna cerulea, among the sparse vegetation. The latest in concealed electric lighting completed the display, which opened to the public in 1923.

The diorama today

The diorama’s original dramatic backdrop showed the restless seas with the main island in the distance. Then in 1937, diorama guru Frank Tose visited Australia from the California Academy of Sciences and spent several months working with Museum staff to update the dioramas. A new, cement-rendered, domed background replaced the original flat backdrop and was painted by artist Ethel King with a sunnier, calmer view of the island’s seas. The lighting was brightened, the diorama front extended and replaced, and some of the birds removed and rearranged.

Changes in exhibition style and new technologies mean traditional dioramas are now rarely used in museum exhibitions (though you can see some recent examples in the ‘Our Backyard’ section of the Museum’s Surviving Australia exhibition).

The Long Gallery was remodelled as the Skeletons, Frameworks for Survival exhibition in 1989, with the Lord Howe Island diorama retained in situ for its heritage significance, screened from the surroundings but fitted with narrow viewing ports that offer a glimpse of its former glory.

In coming months the screen will be removed to reveal the entire diorama. Museum conservation staff will clean the display, check for pests and replace any affected specimens. Restricted access to the space and a fragile painted surface are just two of the challenges they will face.

Once their work is complete, visitors will again be able to imagine themselves standing on a rocky outcrop, nesting birds at their feet, with the distant peaks of Lord Howe Island silhouetted against the sky.

Vanessa Finney,
Manager, Archives and Records

First published in Explore 33(1).

Michael Hugill , Online Producer (Content Strategy & Social Media)
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