In 2014, the American Museum of Natural History restored the dioramas of the Hall of North American Mammals. Museum conservationist broke the seals and removed the single glass pane that enclosed the space allowing them to access the preserved landscapes. They fluffed and airbrushed fur coats, updated lighting, reapplied graphite to artificial shadows and revived and replaced seventy five year old vegetation that had crisped under artificial light. It was an aesthetic reset to a scientific medium.
When they broke the seals they must have asked themselves if the places which they represented had also changed. Did the pane of glass, oak mullion, and brass screw, preserve the landscape of the Sage Creek Basin in South Central Wyoming, the site of the Bison Pronghorn Diorama, as if magically encapsulating it in the same vitrine as its twin in New York: pristine, unchanged, just slightly faded? The restoration was an aesthetic reset of a scientific medium. The same airbrush that refreshed the 1938 diorama landscape in New York, had not reconsidered the contemporary landscape in Wyoming. A true refresh of the diorama would have allowed time to play out, refreshing 1938 to 2017.
The following is how I found a point of view.
[Figure 1001: Bison Pronghorn Diorama View]
The Bison Pronghorn Diorama is a sixteen foot hemisphere cut by a thirty two foot chord. The slice gives museum goers a view into 312,000 acres that the diorama was designed to represent. A space no larger than a walk-in-closet held an entire landscape, five bison and a coterie of prairie dogs. My apartment was smaller.
In one direction I could reach wall to wall, the other was slightly more generous into which I crammed the entirety of my life. I had left Columbia the year before and in an attempt to establish myself I corralled friends into working on architectural competitions where we would lay drawings across bedspreads. The intermezzo to our day jobs our beds held the plans for our futures, the bedroom was where we built our startups. But even in the spirit of our found conference rooms my space was too confined. So after team meetings, I retreated home where I continued working at a desk that barely left enough room to open the refrigerator behind it.
I wasn’t alone. Merica worked beside me. After dinner we cleared the hot plate that my uncle had given me to make room for our laptops.we had met at work, the only place I would find someone who understood why I worked as much as I did. At the sacrifice of the rest of our lives, we found in each other a need to create and in the meantime missed each other. We drained the ideas out of the 72 square feet I lived in. The space left no room for entertainment or relaxation. All the while, I fell in love with her in that space. I should have jumped at her first recommendation that we move in together, but I didn’t. Instead, when she was looking for her own place and was struggling to find anything usable, she asked if she could move in with me temporarily.
I thought that the confined size of my apartment spoke for itself.
When Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to Merica’s apartment we shared a week in intimate toleration of one another, but after two days of brushing by each other between that desk and refrigerator we needed to escape. We stepped out the front door where the debris from the storm littered my neighborhood. Splinters of glass that would never be replaced covered the stoop. A large sycamore tree arched its back over a wrought iron fence that surrounded Theodore Roosevelt Park. It lay waiting for a chalk line and if it had any elegance in the afterlife it would end up in the archives of the neighboring American Museum of Natural History, the building it had shaded. From the 1880s to the 1930s the museum was mandated to accept any specimen that the public offered.
Amateur naturalists who sought a dialogue with the natural world filled the museum with dead birds, small mammals and insects found in their backyards. In a moment of self sacrifice this tree attempted to give itself, unfortunately it didn’t know the museum had ended that policy eighty years before. The park that the tree belonged to was named after one of the museum’s most fervent donors, Theodore Roosevelt. As a child he culled, stuffed and cataloged specimen he found at his parents summer home on Long Island and deposited them into the museum. As a president he created nature preserves and passed conservation measures in tandem with the museum. At the end of his life he lived as an explorer, stocking the museum with thousands of specimen collected on expeditions to South America and Africa. As we walked through his park we paid our respects to the fallen tree and entered the museum that Teddy had contributed so much life and death to.
We went to the museum often, spending twenty or thirty minutes there at a time. Going to the museum brought me out of it. Its exhibits simulated nature and expressed as much about the natural world as the audacity of people who were compelled to recreate it. We were drawn to an honesty in the starkness of the New York State Hall. We walked through exhibits on the glaciation of New York, which described kettle holes, kames and moraines that punctuated and composed the terrain of our state.
Further in, the hall covered the evolution of cultivation from understory burning to contour plowing through cross-sections of the earth illustrating the root structure and gradation of soil that supported the vegetation above. The content was unassuming, it would have been just as comfortable in a local grange as an internationally recognized institution and we were taken by a matter of factness that required no assumptions of the viewer.
It was okay to be dumb here. The primary colors and straightforward graphics communicated this in the smartest way. Equally unassuming was the gem room, where all surfaces: floor, ceiling and walls, were lined in brown carpet. The room was a near match for the the interior of Jane Fonda’s ship in the 1968 erotic space-odyssey Barbarella.
In an attempt to project the future of sexual politics, Barbarella’s ship was draped in a continuous carpeted surface that flowed across wall, floor, ceiling and ottoman. It’s end purpose was an unfortunate embrace of the nude Fonda after a zero-gravity striptease in the title sequence. The carpet layering the walls of the American Museum of Natural History was more of a berber and less of a shag. What it lost in cinematic sensuality it gained in educational suggestion, here it represented the subterranean depths that held the monoclinic crystalline system.
Exhibits like the gem room and the New York State Hall were under-produced giving us the intellectual space for our minds to wander. In contrast, the museum’s contemporary exhibits suffocated our creativity. They were overtly educational and as we walked through the spatial equivalent of a fifth grade textbook the exhibition design loudly whispered in our ears. While the older exhibits left much unsaid, this was their success. In their silence they were able to communicate the obsessive passion of the people who created them and we found ourselves compelled to go out and explore the natural world.
The first was a backpacking trip to hike Devil’s Path, a long distance hiking trail in the Catskills named by Dutch settlers in the 1600s who believed the devil took residence in the notch between Plateau and Hunter Mountains. We traversed the ridge line with a group of five or six friends for two nights covering fifteen miles. I quickly would find that the severity of the trail would accelerate my introduction to hiking.
The Catskills are modestly short, they don’t break a treeline and the only views are where granite outcroppings have split the fabric of the forest. To make up for a lack of height, they cut through boulder scrambles and between cleaved notches. We made camp in the notches and hollows where each of us was responsible for preparing a meal for the rest of the group. I had packed pizzas. The week before at work, as files loaded, I Googled backpacking food.
People who grow up camping have a comfort level with the outdoors, it’s the people like me who are new to the sport that step outside for the first time as an adult. I had befriended anxiety at work and now I brought it into the wilderness where every fear was paired with its own breed of over preparation. With the food, I brought a Bushwick pizza place with me, all the ingredients for the pizza with each serving well chopped in little plastic baggies for six people. I counted out each sheet of foil we needed and every tablespoon of oil.
The wilderness I knew up until that time were the domestic wetlands, farmlands and woodlands that surrounded my childhood in Ohio. Commonlands are dastardly missing in the Midwest, ninety five percent of the land in Ohio is under private ownership. Merica’s childhood made up for my lack of wilderness experience. She was raised in the public land rich state of Utah.
She and her father backpacked through the Unitas carrying bottles of wine into the high country so that he could show her where he wished to have his ashes buried. He also was one of the first people to recreationally float the Snake River. He bought up military surplus rubber rafts and on any errant weekend he and his friends would casually drop in. Merica’s mom came to Utah from Chicago for the dry snow of the Wasatch Range and before Merica could walk she and her brother were strapped to her parent’s ski suits. Hiking and camping were absent from my childhood but defined hers, willing or not, she was my guide to America’s public land system.
[Figure 1003: Map - Ohio vs Utah Federally Owned Lands] [Figure 1004, Spread: Devil’s Path Montage]
She gave me the West.
Our first trip west was to Glacier National Park in Northern Montana. After driving eleven hours from her parent’s house in Salt Lake City we arrived at the Logan Pass parking lot. As we pulled into our parking spot the view framed in our windshield was replicated two thousand miles away in a diorama in the Hall of North American Forests at the American Museum of Natural History. The diorama was conceived of as a way to bring the land to remote viewers in urban areas.
Based on the cyclorama and curio cabinets of the 19th century, the diorama forms a hemispheric room which the viewer stands at the edge of. Along its curved back wall is a landscape background painting, one of which depicted the alpine perch we arrived at in Montana, overlooking the Going to the Sun Road and High Line trail. The work was the last by the noted background painter Francis Lee Jacques. When it was completed it was shown to the benefactor of the window who was unhappy with the sober reality of Jacque’s portrayal and requested for the scene to be repainted with a foreground of flowery foliage. His ego wounded, Jacques was unwilling to repaint the background painting himself and a novice was brought in to make the changes. In his absence, the inexperienced artist flattened the scene’s depth of light. Jacques’ dissatisfaction with the revision fomented into protest and he never entered the museum again.
From the start, Jacque’s original was at a disadvantage. It’s station point was an embarrassingly unremote asphalt tarmac of the Logan Pass visitor center. Back in Montana, Merica and l stepped out of our car and through the frame of Jacques last work onto the Highline trail, an eleven mile route that traced the shoulder of the Continental Divide.
Two hours in and yet to turn around we were counting the hours to sunset, we scrambled to 10,000 feet to an overlook of Grinnell Glacier, a glacier we renamed Horace, or Harry, or whatever. He was one of twenty five glaciers that still existed in the park, all originating in the last 6,000 to 8,000 years. Looking down onto the glacier, the air parted on the edge of a thinly cut ridge that fell away to a glacial cirque that fell further into a vein of glaciated valley. It was a long view that elongated further into my memory.
Behind us was a frontal view of the rest of the park. The mountains of the Lewis Thrust held themselves with composure, telling themselves to be handsome: proper in posture, shoulders back and chin up. The wind leapt over us from one side of the park to the other.
This edge of two worlds was the view the parking lot diorama should have captured and released in New York. We would have done it ourselves but we weren’t aware of the coincidence until we returned to the museum and found ourselves standing in front of our own memory. Below a supply air vent, we felt the wild wind of the Lewis Thrust escape through the hewn wood that framed Jacque’s work. Dejavu greeted us. It was a fitful double take of two places in one, an introduction to the power of the diorama.
[Figure 1005, The View Jacques should have caught] [Figure 1006, Constructing Glacier Diorama] [Figure 1007, Mike and Merica in front of Glacier Diorama]
The dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals were created in the 1930s and were conceived as a scientific tool for extending field research into the museum where a broader and more urban audience could access the remote places which they represented. They were an unnatural duplication of actual places creating a portal from the natural history museum to points throughout the North American continent.
The closest is the whitetail deer depicted at Island Pond a forty five minute drive from the museum in Harriman State Park. The most remote, the musk ox grouping is so isolated that the curators never actually sent a background artist to the site in Nunavut, Canada. Between these two are a range of forty-six North American mammals that form about one tenth of the biological range that exists on the continent. The resolution of the duplication of the mammalian habitats required every detail to be recorded and replicated in highest definition. The museum collected plant specimen, color matched landscapes, and articulated taxidermy armatures to create an artistic xerox of natural environments that they feared were vanishing.
[Figure 1009: Diorama Floor plan]
Dioramas continued a tradition of collecting and cataloging that was central to science one hundred years before. The early 1800s were the beginning of the end of global exploration, the terrestrial world was on the verge of being known. It would be less than one hundred years before the advent of world cruises would allow the average citizen to leisurely circumnavigate the world. Seafaring explorers had fewer virgin territories to claim and their attention shifted to the documentation of already known landscapes. They were in search of mineral veins, scientific insights, arable lands and safe harbors that were missed on cursory passes.
Holding onto enlightenment era attitudes, they saw the exploration of the world as an exploration of human knowledge. It was a task not capable of being bound in the contours of a career so to makeup for this they redefined themselves as a type of polymath, an artist, adventurer, explorer, scientist. Bit by bit they captured the world and sent it back to central processors back home. They were the cursor of the nation and the natural history museum was the data center, a collection of the natural world where the specimen formed a sort of hypertext that linked disparate parts of the world together.
At the time, the underlying structure of this global web was Linnaean classification which grouped plant and animal life into strict taxonomic families which allowed explorers and scientist to easily sort through the content when they returned home. By the time Darwin was on his boat in the 1820s the field of natural history had begun to splinter into discrete sciences. Natural history became biology, zoology, and botany which would split into narrowers concentrations such as herpetology, comparative anatomy, geobiology and on. This process was a shift away from the singular act of collecting and categorization that was the root of Linnaean classification towards an attitude of experimentalism which asked how those categories participated in a dynamic and ever evolving world.
It would take one hundred years for the Natural History museum to sync with the shift. In the 1920s and 1930s the museum as a typology was undergoing a radical transformation from an insular academic warehouse to an extroverted institution with a mandate to educate the public. The diorama was the final punctuation mark in this baton pass. Underlying this transformation was a reform movement that championed the educational role of the natural history museum called the New Museum Movement. It advocated for science to no longer be held opaquely within the institutional boundaries of a university and sought to democratize the scientific process.
Museum Men, the protagonists of this shift, were a group of Progressive Era curators and exhibition planners who believed that shared intelligence led to an egalitarian society. Artistic expression was no longer forbidden and exhibition design was now multivalent and inclusive rather isolated and controlled. Natural history museums moved away from the strict taxonomic classifications and experimented with new organizational systems that described the interdependencies between species.
Catching the trajectory of modern science, the diorama was the physical manifestation of this shift. It was an open source medium, curators traded techniques amongst institutions. At one museum a curator experimented lifelike posturing, another added a pictorial background, the next added site sampled vegetation, it was through this cumulative process that the contemporary diorama was generated. As the diorama matured the scientific intent became clearer, the content around a specimen was as important as the specimen themselves. Museum men planned elaborate expeditions to collect the animal as well as its habitat, plants, soil and panorama. These expeditions closely resembled the old style of Natural History by reviving curators as a type of polymath that was equal parts explorer, artist, hunter and scientist. It was the type of adventure that Alexander Von Humboldt or Charles Darwin embodied.
Darwin hated the boat that made him famous. He had violent bouts of seasickness that left him favoring the land over the sea. He would spend five years on the boat and never fully reconcile his nausea. It followed him from England to South America, around Cape Horn, through Tierra Del Fuego, on the way to Australia, as he rounded the Kneel Islands and as he wrapped the tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. His vessel, The Beagle, was at the command of the British Admiralty with instruction to complete existing maps of the coast of South America and raise the flag near British holdings to remind them that the Crown had not forgotten them. The Beagle was mandated to create an inventory of potential sites for natural resource extraction by documenting the geology and botany of the continent.
Darwin saw this as an opportunity to establish his career as a biologist, as did the majority of the educated crew. The whole damn boat saw themselves as naturalists. It was a common expectation on voyages like this for the surgeon to not abuse his intellect. While the crew was healthy it was assumed he would note the natural environment. For Darwin, the journey’s purpose was a matter of professional practicality. It was a trip where he could establish his credibility through experiencing the natural world, a five year long in-the-field internship. At twenty-two Darwin, was only four years younger than his captain Robert Fitzroy. A combination of their innocence and their shared interest in the natural environment led to a mutual affinity for one another. In addition to a berth on the ship, Fitzroy allowed Darwin to take extended leaves to travel overland. On shore Darwin escaped his nausea and it was where his most consequential observations took place.
In October 1835, four years into the voyage, Darwin describes the perfect gradation in the beak of a series of finches that he found on the Galapagos. He understood that their confinement on separate islands contributed to the mutation but he didn’t full realize his discovery in the moment. His epiphany was truncated by the pace of his travels and he wouldn’t fully expand on it until he disembarked from the Beagle in England in 1836. It was through conversations about his travels years after the fact that elicited a theory from Darwin. He would have missed the epiphany if his colleagues hadn’t recognized the importance of what he had experience as a passing curiosity up unto that time.
Darwin’s dispatches were not a thesis but a continuous feed of thoughts, experiences and feelings. A record of his daily life. Thoughts on evolution and transmutation are only intermittently interjected amongst his personal experiences. They make up a small portion of the five years on the Beagle and an even smaller portion of the actual text of his journals.
His journey writes itself in anecdotes. Somewhere in Argentina, he attempts to learn how to rope a steer with a pair of bolas which are weighted lead or cast iron balls attached to each other by leather straps. When thrown, the steel and leather wrap around the legs of the animal incapacitating it.The Gauchos who taught him watched as he swung the balls over his head. He released them clumsily and roped the legs of his own horse incapacitating himself in front of the frontiersmen who he fondly respected. His humiliation is the subject of his own observation.
These personal moments are the cartilage between scientific inquiries. By viewing the full experience of Darwin its clear his journey was both inward and outward, a way to find himself while finding the world. Confined to a boat, his life and vocation were inseparable for the five years that he travelled. It was the type of vocation that required a diary, a lifestyle he model after Alexander Von Humboldt whose “Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent” defined the template for scientific self-exploration which inspired Darwin to explore the Andes and Galapagos.
In March of 1835 as Darwin crossed the Cordillera of the Andes he gave a literary sketch of the geological structure of the mountains. He describes the dull red and purple claystone porphyry and hard igneous rock sparkled with crystals. He shifts from the microscopic scale of the granular makeup of the rock in front of him to descriptions of the penetration, upheaval and overturn of continental plates. At 14,000 feet Darwin thinks of Alexander Von Humboldt who ascended the same range in 1805.
Von Humboldt was the world’s foremost mountain climber and had ascended the dormant volcano Chimborazo to 19,000 feet, just 1,500 feet short of the summit of what at the time was considered to be the tallest mountain in the world.
On a stretch of logic Chimborazo still is. Earth’s ovoid shape and Chimborazo’s proximity to the equator positions it’s summit as the piece of earth closest to outer space and the furthest from the earth’s core.
While Von Humboldt didn’t summit Chimborazo, he did notice a gradual shift in vegetation that corresponded with his rise in altitude. In a single drawing called the Naturgemalde, he communicated a complex relationship between climate, habitat and geography. It is a cross-section of the mountain with species labelled at the elevation where they occur along the transect of the mountain. He started in the forested foothills, climbed above the treeline, and continued into alpine habitat. Each strata of the mountain was a unique ecosystem that unto itself could be thought to be independent. When considered within the scope of the entire mountain they acted in unison as an interdependent system. No one before him had conceptualized nature in such a vast and encompassing way. (Wulf 88) Both, the concept and the medium he used to communicate it were revolutionary in their immediacy.
When Von Humboldt returned to Europe he compared his notes with the only person who had been higher than him. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, a French physicist, ascended to 23,000 feet in a hot air balloon to measure the effect of altitude on the composition of the atmosphere and electromagnetic field of the Earth. Von Humboldt and Gay-Lussac compared their measurements at altitude and quickly created a personal relationship travelling and lecturing together. Their bond was formed around a vantage point near the top of the troposphere. From this view, Von Humboldt saw the interdependencies that made up the natural world. He saw the world as a fluid geography that tied all living beings together and relinquished the narrow silos of Linnaean taxonomic classification that up until that time structured scientific thought. In its place he created a new system of classification that characterized species by their interdependence rather than isolating traits.
Point of view is Von Humboldt’s most effective tactic. Von Humboldt's was wide angle and suspended in the air. It was through this pre-sputnik, pre-google earth, bird’s eye view that he could expression his unifying vision of the world. Point-of-view was also his method of dispersion, it was through imagery and personal narration that he disseminated his thoughts. The strict outline of Chimborazo held weeks of his records. It was only through the collection of his personal experience, months of travel, layered on months of travel that he could articulate a thought that was so out of human proportion. It required that his body move through his subject at the length of an expedition.
The magnitude of Von Humboldt’s influence litters our geography from Humboldt County, to Humboldt Peak in Colorado, to Humboldt Range in Nevada, to Humboldt Range in Antarctica, to Humboldt Range in New Zealand, to the Humboldt current that the H.M.S. Beagle drifted through along the western coast of Chile, to Humboldt glacier in Greenland his name is as interwoven into our geographical nomenclature as were his ideas. His popular success was found not just in the breadth of his ideas but in his ability to communicate them in a way that spoke to the humanity of a popular audience. He invented the term Cosmos to apply his theories of interconnectedness to the entire universe.
He would spend the remainder of his life trying to synthesize the capacity of human thought to describe the totality of all that was known. Von Humboldt’s reach was lofty, and while he was attempting to describe everything that existed he brought it to a sharp point through his own experience. It was through the deliberate illustration of a point of view, whether his own in “Personal Narrative” or of one he fabricated in the form a two dimensional diagram of a mountain transect, point-of-view was the medium through which he described the Romanticism of science that he learnt at an early age through his conservations with Goethe. To Goethe and Von Humboldt science and art were inseparable, they considered both equal part in describing the human condition. The conflation of the two was the point-of-view that the Museum Men revived nearly a century later in the format of the diorama.
James Perry Wilson wrote to the diorama artist Thanos Johnson in August 29, 1944 describing the thirteen graduated tints he uses to cover the range of values in a sky. Three or four dabs of white, a tint of ruby madder, a tint of cadmium lemon and one or two tints of of blue. He continues to describe the effects of atmosphere on the coloration of clouds as they recede into the distance: clouds nearest will be flush white, clouds halfway between you and the horizon will have a yellowish cast as the atmosphere filters out that wavelength. As the clouds approach the horizon an even thicker atmosphere will filter out the reds as well. The color of the atmosphere was also an obsession for Von Humboldt in his journeys along the Orinoco. He brought with him a cyanometer to measure the blueness of the sky which he record as he ascended Chimborazo. Like Von Humboldt, Perry conferred with a high altitude balloonist to further his understanding of the atmosphere’s effect on light. In an exchange with Captain Stevens, whose balloon the Explorer II rose to a height of 73,000 feet, he learned that the thinner the atmosphere the whiter and more intense sunlight was. Wilson’s artistic curiosity was hued with the rigor of an empiricist and his exacting nature was a natural companion to his shy personality. His observational advice to Thanos was not polemical, it was factual, an attempt to communicate the care one must take in reconciling subjective aesthetic principles with the objective physics of light. His observational power led him to become the preeminent diorama painter of his time.
[Figure 1010, Sky paint samples]
He was trained as an architect but it only delayed his true vocation: painting en plein aire. His route to his true passion was indirect. As a teenager, a neighborhood friend introduced him to landscape painting and he developed his technique painting en plein aire in coastal Monhegan, Maine and in the countryside of New Jersey. It was a practice that would stay in the background of his life occasionally appearing on vacations upstate where he made a habit of perfecting his skill in the semi-nude to nude. He redirected his life towards architecture when he enrolled in the newly created Columbia School of Architecture. After school, he found comfort working for the architect Bertram Goodhue, an architect who would spend a life searching for a style but would never find it. While Goodhue’s architectural influence never manifested, he was one of the preeminent architectural visualizers in the early 1910s and 1920s. Wilson’s skill for scientifically casting shadows was quickly recognized and he found a place in the office. He not only excelled professionally with Goodhue, he found a safe community that accepted him as a socially reserved gay man. Wilson thrived in this environment and would have most likely completed a career their if the firm’s founder had not died in the midst of the Great Depression. Wilson was laid off in 1932. This left him free to make his plein aire jaunts a vocation.
When Perry Wilson came to the American Museum of Natural History he entered a competitive culture that contrasted with his experience at Bertram Goodhue. He came into a world where he was an unusually slow painter and he was accused of stealing paint. He arrived during a period of expansion which was overseen by the newly appointed director James L. Clark. The weight of expanding the museum so soon after the depression was a elephantine task of courting donors, balancing powers among museum departments and reconciling the popularity of the diorama which brought in large audiences and ticket sales. The museum defaulted on its loans during the Great Depression, half of the institution’s endowment had been in railroad bonds, and it was the diorama that was responsible for recuperating losses through attracting lucrative donations. Because of its ability to attract donors, the importance of the diorama within the portfolio of the museum was outsized and the Hall of North American Mammals siphoned funds away from other departments that were badly in need. Clark had to extinguish skirmishes that ignited between departments competing for diorama money while also promoting the diorama because of its ability to draw large audiences. When Perry Wilson arrived at the museum the dioramas were at the height of their popularity and they were also the financial savior for an underfunded museum.
Clark came to trust Perry Wilson. The museum had already formalized the technique for executing a diorama when he had joined. Perry Wilson was indoctrinated in the process under William R. Leigh, a disciple of the father of the diorama, Carl Akeley. Akeley taught truth in nature and encouraged a strong distrust in the individuality. Wilson learned the techniques of site value studies, adding buttermilk to dull glossy paint and strategies for rendering atmospheric perspective and distance deception. Leigh, who had been trained in the German academic tradition wasn’t true to Akeley’s ethos and embellished landscape features and atmospheric lighting to add theatricality. Wilson’s scientific sobriety bleed the artistic ego out of Leigh’s process by adding a level of precision to the already perfected methods of the museum. He transcribed two dimensional scenes onto the curvature of diorama shell using a method he developed for projecting a grid onto complex curvature. The grid was adjusted to morph as it approached the viewer distorting the objects in the periphery of the image so they were perceived to be flat.
At 11:15 pm on September 3rd of 1938 Perry Wilson departed Grand Central Station for the American West. He was sent to find and capture a site for the Bison Pronghorn diorama grouping. He arrived in Billings where he purchased a 1938 Ford pickup and drove with foreground artist George Petersen, taxidermist Gardell Christiansen and mammalogist T. Donald Carter along the Red Lodge Highway through Yellowstone Park where they made their first stop to conduct studies for a Grizzly grouping. They continued on to Mammoth Hot Springs, through Cody and eventually arriving in Saratoga Wyoming on September 21st where they would spend a week. It was in the Sage Creek Basin in 1938 where they began the process of constructing the Bison Pronghorn Grouping. The dioramas consist of three main components, each represented a man on the expedition. A foreground collage of collected vegetation of blue grama grasses, buffalo grasses, sage grass, rock and soil samples were collected by George Petersen. Pronghorn antelope specimen were observed and culled by T. Donald Carter. James Perry Wilson captured photographic panoramas and plein aire compositional paintings to study the form and coloration of the landscape.
[Figure 1011, Perry Wilson on-site]
The bison were collected on an expedition the following winter when the animal’s coat was the fullest. The animals were harvested under permission from the United States Biological Survey from the National Bison Range in central Montana established by the American Bison Society in 1904. A “large bull, a medium-sized bull, a large cow, a young cow, a two-year-old spike horn, and a small eight-month old calf” were harvested from a herd of 640. Bison were so few that it was unlikely that they existed in South Central Wyoming at the time Perry Wilson visited. While most dioramas were precise replicas of landscapes as they existed, the Bison Pronghorn Grouping was an exception, it purposefully recalled bison and pronghorn populations of the 1820s to educate the public of their near eradication and revival through ongoing conservation efforts.
The Bison Pronghorn Diorama is situated in the most prominent position in the center of the Hall of North American Mammals. The group consists of five bison grazing in the foreground of sagebrush plains, skittishly close to them is a grouping of pronghorn. Clark was entrusting the untested Wilson with the success of the Bison Pronghorn diorama, one of the largest executed, and in turn the success of the entire hall. The collecting trip in 1938 was Wilson’s first and while it is comparatively short compared to the multi-year expeditions of 18th and 19th century, like Darwin or Von Humboldt it was a continuation of his personal narrative. It was nothing more than the vacations he took to Mohegan or New Jersey to paint en plein aire, he stood semi-nude on the foothills of the Sierra Madres shirtless mixing colors and matching hues. The diorama was a superimposition of himself onto the Sage Creek Basin. In the same way Darwin needed to retrace Von Humboldt to come to his theory on evolution and Von Humboldt needed the Orinoco to come to his Personal Narrative the act of embarking opened Wilson to an intellectual landscape not available in New York. Only by being there could he be the antenna of that place, tuning himself into the site. He obsessed with the reality of the site, every piece of terrain was placed with precision, you feel the dew point, the atmospheric pressure, the wind speed and the uv index, what you mostly feel is yourself just as Perry Wilson had.
Perry Wilson resisted the theatrical drama of the German School of landscape painting that had been perfected by Albert Bierstadt. Bierstadt’s last painting hangs alone in a transitory hall of the National Gallery in Washington D.C. It was slightly smaller than the apartment Merica and I escaped from at 5’-11” by 9’11”. It depicts the destruction of the bison. A few feet into the image a triplet of bison lay prone, one clearly dead and two others contemplating death. Behind them is a bull bison in a mele with an indian mounted on a white horse drawn back on its hind legs. The horse prances among the bison bones that fill the foreground. Receding into the scene are scores of animals who are complicit in the violence as they witness the death that preceded their own. Bierstadt depicts death in the last light of the day. The landscape shares culpability in the crime as an enveloping basin shepherds the herd into its shadow where escape is unlikely. Unseen aggressors are presumed to be just over the ridgelines that frame the horizon. Removing the violence from Bierstadt’s “Destruction of the Bison” leaves an image close to what Perry Wilson found in the Sage Creek Basin. In an eire pantomime, Wilson’s background painting recalls Bierstadt’s raised foreground and swiftly sweeping basin.
The “Destruction of the Bison” was the definitive work of Bierstadt. Executed in 1888, it was created at the moment bison were in most peril, with numbers in the low 1000s. Bierstadt’s landscape was a fiction. It was a collection of topographical features that don’t exist together but are a sampling of his trips through the American West. The Bison Pronghorn Diorama was a tribute to this tribute. Bierstadt harkened the past image of mass herds of bison to evoke the weight of their loss and Perry Wilson cleaned up the violence to render it an aspirational tool for American conservation. Wilson filtered out Bierstadt's emotional weight and rendered the scene with his trademark precision. Bierstadt fabricated an idealized landscape immersive enough to hold the emotional complexity of the eradication of a species. Perry Wilson found the actual place and attempted to use it to save them. No fiction was needed.
[Figure 1012, Bierstadt: Destruction of the Bison]
Seventy seven years after Perry Wilson went to the Sage Creek Basin in a Ford Truck, I followed with a girlfriend, a rancher and his wife in a Ford Truck of our own. When Merica and I left my apartment that day to escape the Hurricane, one of the many places we found within the museum was the Bison Pronghorn Diorama. We stood gazing into the artificial landscape unaware that we would find the actual place, we were unaware of the forthcoming expiration of our relationship, and we were unaware of how drastically the Sage Creek Basin would change in the nearest future. My spirit was linked with Perry Wilson. Somehow through that frame he communicated the importance of a singular view back to me. The parallels in his life story with mine haunts me. He and I both trained as architects at Columbia. We both excelled as renderers in architectural offices in New York. We both craved an extracurricular life centered around nature in one of the most unnatural cities in America. His work drew Merica and I to Wyoming and in 2015 we would recreate his trip. The dioramas served as a benchmark for not only how the land has changed in the last seventy seven years but also how our attitude towards the land has changed. An attitude that is played out politically, economically, and culturally. In 1938 there was a need to preserve these places that they saw as so threatened that it was worth duplicating, relocating and sealing them in glass. The passage of time gave us a new window into these places: we could check in to see if they survived.
So we did
[Figure 1013, Photo, Truck Tire] [Figure 1014, Bison Grouping with Balloon]