When you see a diorama in a museum, do you give it a passing glance or do you stop to look inside?
If you stop to look inside, do you notice the animals first? The plants? What do you see? How do you make sense of the scene before you?
Michael J. Reiss and Sue Dale Tunnicliffe of the Institute of Education at the University of London evaluate dioramas and study how visitors react to them. In Dioramas as Depictions of Reality and Opportunities for Learning in Biology, they explain how these small “rooms with a view” can be used as a teaching tool in biology.
Reiss and Tunnicliffe (2011) evaluated dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Natural History Museum in London. In their evaluation, they observed each diorama carefully and answered the following questions:
- What is happening within the diorama?
- What was the intention of those who designed and constructed the diorama?
- What do visitors notice and discuss?
Their evaluation of dioramas was followed by a review of visitor comments collected from 163 conversations recorded at the Natural History Museum in London.
The authors found that dioramas enhance visitors’ observational skills, encourage inquiry-based learning and inspire visitors to become storytellers. Reiss and Tunnicliffe (2011) observed that when visitors stop to view a diorama, a specific sequence of events occurs. First, visitors identify the specimens in the diorama. Then they make comments about the specimens and interpret the scene before them by drawing upon their prior knowledge. This is followed by visitors asking questions about the scene and devising a story to describe what is going on in the diorama.
It is the storytelling aspect of dioramas that Reiss and Tunnicliffe (2011) say make dioramas good tools for learning in biology. The stories visitors create about the scene before them blend their observations with their own life experiences and this makes it possible for visitors to internalize new information. Reiss and Tunnicliffe (2011) feel museum educators need to guide visitors in the storytelling process because sometimes dioramas can tell the wrong story.
What do Reiss and Tunnicliffe (2011) mean by this?
While the authors value dioramas and the attention to detail that goes into their construction, they have some concern about the messages they send. Their specific concerns have to do with dioramas moving away from “actual reality” and their tendency towards “interesting presented reality” (Reiss and Tunnicliffe, 2011). The authors are concerned that dioramas:
- Depict animals doing more interesting things than they would be doing in real life.
- Present animals engaged in “unrealistically frequent acts of predation” (Reiss and Tunnicliffe, 2011)
- Show only examples of healthy and fit animal life.
- Do not include humans interacting with nature, therefore suggesting that humans are separate from nature.
Think about the dioramas you have seen. Do you agree with the concerns raised by Reiss and Tunnicliffe?
Share your observations and thoughts by joining the conversation with artist and museum consultant Gary Hoyle, this month’s featured guest. Today the conversation is about dioramas and the visitor experience.
Reiss, Michael J. and Sue Dale Tunnicliffe. 2011. Dioramas as depictions of reality and opportunities for learning in biology. Curator: The Museum Journal.