Dioramas at The Field Museum

Since the Museum’s opening in 1893, dioramas have been at the heart of The Field Museum, bringing visitors closer to nature by presenting animals in highly realistic natural environments. They are collaborations of academia and art, creating a sensory experience as much as an intellectual one. Through the vivid reconstructions it’s easy to travel from the jungles of Africa to the highlands of Asia and everywhere in-between. The dioramas offer the private pleasure of imagining a dangerous, wild encounter within the walls of the Museum.

Nowhere is this sense of danger better captured than in the Lions of Tsavo display in the Hall of Mammals. This diorama features the world’s best known man-eating lions, which inspired the 1996 movie The Ghost and the Darkness. Together they killed an estimated 35 people, literally stopping the British Empire in its tracks by feasting on railroad construction workers. The two killers are posed on a rocky ledge, looking toward the visitors as potential prey. This rare window into the lives of the aggressive lions allows visitors to see everything from tooth to tail, and gain an appreciation for how dangerous they really were.

More than just snapshots of nature, the dioramas also tell stories from the wilderness. In a series of four dioramas in the Nature Walk exhibition, visitors follow a group of white-tailed deer through each of the seasons, and can clearly see just how strongly the seasons affect the animals’ appearance and behavior. This set of dioramas established a standard in taxidermy and naturalistic habitats for natural history museums throughout the country. Master taxidermist Carl Akeley created the diorama and was so determined to convey a convincing setting that he molded over 17,000 wax leaves for the display. 

Lifelike poses and backgrounds allow dioramas to communicate lifelike tension, as in the African Water-Hole diorama. Measuring 45 feet wide and 22 feet deep and high, the African Water-Hole was at one time heralded as the largest known animal diorama in the world. It features 23 animals of six different species including giraffe, rhinoceros, and zebra. The animals all approach a small mud-filled water-hole occupied by a large rhinoceros and her calf. In the dry plains of Ethiopia where the diorama is set, water is precious and scarce. The largest giraffe tentatively approaches the rhino, testing to see how close he can get to the water. The realism is striking and refined to such a degree that the taxidermists included a tickbird perched on the back of the rhinoceros. There is a life or death tension in the air; each group of animals comes with young they will fight to keep alive. The African Water-Hole diorama displays many of The Field Museum’s most treasured African animals in their quest for survival and speaks to the fragility of life in an unforgiving environment.

The dioramas at The Field Museum represent some of the most extensive collections of animals in the world in their natural settings. They capture nature at a moment and convey a microcosm of the world.