For New Yorkers used to film, animation and animatronics the dioramas of the American Museum Of Natural Hiasotry may seem pretty dusty, old and boring. However they are one of the greatest treasures in the whole of NYC. They represent the first shots fired in what is now a world wide effort to save endangered species.
That they exist at all is due to the genius taxidermist Carl Akeley, several enlightened presidents of the AMNH, Morris K Jesup aand Henry Fairfield Osborn, the support of Theodore Roosevelt and his friends and philanthropists like J.P. Morgan who financed the expeditions that brought all the animals and birds back to NYC. These men were a mixed bunch, some more motivated by scientific exploration than others but all united in their appreciation of the wonders of a world far distant from NYC and determined to bring that world home for all to appreciate in their turn.
Even as Carl Akely proposed the idea of the diaoramas to the Museum’s board in 1909, the landscapes and animals recreated within them were already disappearing in the form in which they had existed for millenia. That none of the animals in the dioramas are now extinct is due in no small measure to Akeley and his band of scientists, artists and hunters who awoke New Yorkers and Americans generally to the natural wonders of the world and created a consciousness around preseerving the world’s natural wonders.
Imagine the impact on early 20th century visitors to the Museum to see these exotic animals and birds in the setting in which they lived. They are still amazing and the chief exhibit in Akeley Hall, the herd of elephants, is still awe inspiring in its power and natural majesty.
Instead of seeing these dioramas as old fashioned they deserve to be seen as what they are, an incredibly bold and forward thinking experiment in time travel, in travel to continents now changed beyond recognition. They represent a deep love for a primeval moment in the earth’s history. They are a yardstick by which we can measure the ongoing campaign to preserve the earth’s incredibly rich biodiversity for future generations.