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Behind the Glass: Restoration at the Natural History Museum's Dioramas

After 70 years, the stuffed animals at the American Museum of Natural History’s North American mammal room are finally getting the spa treatment they deserve.

The museum is in the middle of a $2.5 million-restoration of the exhibit’s 29 dioramas, which first opened to the public in 1942.

Over the years, the colors of the animal’s pelts have faded due to exposure to light. Museum staff is taking apart the dioramas, removing the animals, and re-dyeing their skins. In addition, they’re repairing the grasses, branches and boulders that make-up their natural settings, as well as touching up the dioramas’ backdrop paintings

“I think there is no other medium that more forcefully brings the viewer into contact with the natural world short of actually being there,” said the museum's Curator of Mammals, Rob Voss. “The goal of this whole project is to return these dioramas to the pristine state they were in in 1942.”

The process is painstaking. First, museum workers have to remove the massive glass panes that guard the dioramas. Then, a woodworker must make custom scaffolding for each diorama so staff can go in without disturbing the animals' delicate environments. Then, specialists mix their own water-soluble dyes, comparing the colors with the hues of real pelts to correctly match exact shades. Lastly, the models are carefully airbrushed with new colors.

The project is being paid for by the museum’s trustees. Museum administrators hope to have the entire exhibit open again by this time next year.

A stuffed grizzly bear in the Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History
A stuffed grizzly bear in the Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
Rob Voss, Curator of Mammals, poses in one of the dioramas being restored.
Rob Voss, Curator of Mammals, poses in one of the dioramas being restored. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
On Tuesday morning, a mountain lion awaited touch-ups.
On Tuesday morning, a mountain lion awaited touch-ups. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
Over the 70 years since the opening of the exhibit, the colors of the animal pelts have faded due to exposure to light.
Over the 70 years since the opening of the exhibit, the colors of the animal pelts have faded due to exposure to light. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
A row of hand-mixed dyes are mixed and matched to find the perfect color for each animal.
A row of hand-mixed dyes are mixed and matched to find the perfect color for each animal.
Specialist George Dante compares the test swatches of dyed fur with a real mountain lion pelt from museum storage.
Specialist George Dante compares the test swatches of dyed fur with a real mountain lion pelt from museum storage. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
Dante then uses an airbrush to apply the final approved dyes to the model.
Dante then uses an airbrush to apply the final approved dyes to the model. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
Piles of reference furs sit on a bench in the workspace.
Piles of reference furs sit on a bench in the workspace. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
It's not just about the furs. Fake snow will also be reapplied to branches in the dioramas' natural settings.
It's not just about the furs. Fake snow will also be reapplied to branches in the dioramas' natural settings. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
Before-and-after photographs of one of the restored models.
Before-and-after photographs of one of the restored models. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
The team includes a woodworking expert who makes custom scaffolds that allow staff to move around the delicate exhibits.
The team includes a woodworking expert who makes custom scaffolds that allow staff to move around the delicate exhibits. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
A second mountain lion awaits its turn to be re-dyed, eerily napping underneath a plastic covering in the meantime.
A second mountain lion awaits its turn to be re-dyed, eerily napping underneath a plastic covering in the meantime. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
Half of the exhibit has already been restored -- like these animals, brilliantly shining in their original colors.
Half of the exhibit has already been restored -- like these animals, brilliantly shining in their original colors. ( Marlon Bishop/WNYC )
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