Book Review: Windows on Nature

My favorite part of the American Museum of Natural History isn’t the planetarium or the fossils, but the dioramas. It is thrilling to walk through the darkened Hall of North American Mammals and peer into these frozen moments in time. Staring at the American Bison or the stunning Alaska Brown Bear standing on his hind legs, I always wonder about the people who made these spell-binding works of art and education. And thanks to Stephen Christopher Quinn’s 2006 book Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, now I know.

The book recounts the history and evolution of the diorama from its origins as two-dimensional light shows created by Louis Daguerre (father of modern photography) all the way through its apotheosis in the Halls of African Life and American Mammals at the AMNH and the diorama’s eventual decline with the advent of documentary film.

Quinn also provides a literary portrait and brief history of every diorama in the museum, complete with in-process pictures! The book is chock-full of anecdotal gems like the one about the workmen who installed the Great Blue Whale and tricked their foreman into thinking the ceiling was giving out by tampering with his ruler every night.

Truly, though, the images of artists and taxidermists working on the dioramas are priceless! If you have any interest in the AMNHs’ exhibits then I strongly suggest you read this book. It will add a whole new dimension to your enjoyment!

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