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Carl Akeley (1864–1926) started a revolution in museum exhibit design when he created his muskrat diorama for the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1890. It was the first museum exhibit to show an animal in its natural habitat and the first to have a realistic background painted to create the illusion of depth and continuity of the animal’s environment. After the Scientific Revolution began and especially during the “Age of the Marvelous” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, collections of natural and human-made objects were displayed in “wünderkammern,” rooms of wonder or curiosity cabinets, often arranged in a way that we might now consider strange, without a modern understanding of systematics, environmental, or cultural context. From the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century until Akeley’s muskrat diorama, taxonomic groupings dominated museum displays.

Akeley’s genius as a taxidermist gave the dioramas an unsurpassed realism. Instead of stuffing animal skins with straw and cotton as taxidermists had done for centuries, Akeley mounted the skins over armatures that he steadily improved as he moved from Milwaukee to the Field Museum in Chicago, and finally to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He modeled ancillary items such as plants in the diorama with obsessive detail. The results were unprecedented evocations of living animals actively engaged in their ecological niches (herein defined as their place in nature, including their activities).

Akeley’s focus was the same as that of the great minds of the Scientific Revolution, and it’s the same as scientists’ today: the geometry of nature, its structural detail, and spatial relationships. Akeley showed not only the form and structure of animals in his dioramas, but he also defined the environmental space that encompassed them as well. Akeley’s focus was more mundane than Descartes’s res extensa or Stephen Hawking’s dark matter between cosmic bodies, but Akeley for the first time showed the general public that they could see the form and structure of animals and the space between in an altogether new way. Today that vision has a name, ecology. And we call its conception in deep time, paleoecology.

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