natural history observes itself

So the American Museum of Natural History has put online some archival photos of its exhibits being built and viewed from about the turn of the century to the mid-1960s [ok, ok, via kottke, he finds everything!].

And as this fellow Pruned points out the creepy/surreal shots of the dioramas being built are by far the best. He (she?) plucked a bunch out for you to ponder if you so choose, but I also like the snapshots of AMNH visitors gazing on the dioramas when they were new and marvelous instead of musty and quaint as they seem today.

Something about the combination of morbidly realistic taxidermy with observers so old-fashioned they seem fictional in these shots makes the dioramas seem more real—or the visitors seem less real—or maybe both. Especially if you crop out the borders of the dioramas. See what I mean?

Visitor viewing Mako Shark diorama, Hall of Fishes, 1948

amnh visitor with shark diorama

Visitors viewing Olympic Forest Group, Hall of North American Forestry, 1958

amnh visitors with olympia forest diorama

Visitors viewing Moa Group diorama, Whitney Hall, 1952

amnh visitor with moa group diorama

Freaky. Ok, I’ll also give you with just one incredibly spooky photo of a diorama in the making that didn’t make Pruned‘s…eh…cut:

Working on Condor Group diorama, Birds of the World Hall, 1963

amnh scientist working on condor diorama

More important than any possible Krishnamurtian significance of the meta-voyeurism of these photos (sorry Sean!) is this: The Museum of Natural History is just the most recent in a long series of the “traditional” institutions that serve as the public storehouses of our cultural memory to start releasing its incredible store of content to the big, bad internet in easily consumable form.

In recent memory, the Library of Congress went and got itself a flickr account, then the Smithsonian had to get one too, and the New York Public Library‘s excellent Digital Gallery, which has actually been around for some time now, is about to launch a nice redesign that’s been in beta for awhile. The Museum of Modern Art, The Met, and now the Guggenheim have online databases too, but they aren’t quite as accessible and blogger-friendly as the NYPL’s (and their flickr accounts are sadly just event photos).

So, other grand, historical, intellectual institutions…who’s next?

2 Comments

britta on September 6, 2008

oh cool! somehow i missed this. my great grand-uncle or something, roy waldo miner, worked on the coral reef diorama back in the 1920s - and looking around, i believe this is him: http://images.library.amnh.org/photos/ptm/catalog/desc/157893/4

lauren on September 6, 2008

Amazing! I'd be so psyched if a great grand uncle of mine was in these pics.

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