Published: January 26, 2016

Project Hyena Diorama

We crowdfunded a new home for old specimens.

Four taxidermy hyenas pick at a carcass in a diorama. A painted background shows early dawn.

In 2015, our science-education YouTube channel, The Brain Scoop, teamed up with museum fans from all over the world to fund the creation of the Field Museum's first new habitat diorama in over 60 years. Thanks to more than 1,500 contributors from across the globe, the six-week campaign raised enough money to move our striped hyenas to a brand new home in the William V. Kelley Hall (Mammals of Asia).

The story of how the dream of this display became a reality is almost as interesting as the diorama itself—and, naturally, it starts with a barricaded space in a room full of taxidermied animals.

Chief Curiosity Correspondent and The Brain Scoop host Emily Graslie is always sniffing around for interesting stories tucked in all corners of the museum. So, upon hearing one day about a boarded-up space in Asian Mammals, Graslie had to know what was behind the hollow green walls.

What we found was, well, a bit underwhelming: a storage space piled high with crates and random odds and ends used to make other dioramas. But that storage area, once emptied, held enormous possibility. What specimens could fill that 130-square-foot space?

The work of Carl Akeley held the answers—as it so often does.

Carl Akeley, with a bandaged left hand and right arm in a sling, stands next to a dead leopard, hanging from its back two legs tied with a rope. They are pictured in front of a tent.

Carl Akeley fought and killed a leopard with his bare hands in Somalia in 1896, on the same expedition where he collected the striped hyenas.

Carl Akeley

Who was Carl Akeley?

Carl Akeley was a zoologist, taxidermist, and conservationist who collected some pretty amazing specimens that are now in the Field Museum. Today, he’s regarded as a founding father of modern taxidermy as an art form. (He was also a sculptor and inventor, building incredible devices like a mobile motion-picture camera!)

In 1896, Akeley was part of the first American-led museum expedition to what is now Somaliland, an autonomous region in the country of Somalia. Akeley and the team returned to the United States with over 200 specimens of wild animals—including four striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena)—and spent nine years preparing and mounting them for display.

At the turn of the century, large animals were often hunted in order to collect them for display—a practice we no longer follow. Akeley’s meticulously recreated taxidermy mounts played an important role in a time long before televised nature documentaries and the advent of the internet. Those specimens were one of the only ways for the public to see animals in their natural habitats.

In the early 1920s, the museum drew up plans for 20 dioramas in Asian Mammals—but expeditions to collect specimens ended when the Great Depression hit, and work on the dioramas slowed. After the tapir diorama opened in 1954, only one space remained vacant in Asian Mammals. Meanwhile, the hyenas wound up stashed in a display case alongside the Reptiles and Amphibians Hall, of all places. (We’re stumped, too.)

Crowdfunding the project

In April 2015, decades after the hyenas were relegated to life in the reptile hall and shortly after discovering that empty diorama space, Graslie got a wild idea to get our Brain Scoop viewers involved in a whole new way. We decided to kick off a campaign to crowd fund the Project Hyena Diorama, our first new full-scale habitat diorama in more than 60 years.

In helping us raise money for the diorama, natural history fans from around the world could get in on the action—even if they had never visited the Field Museum before. So we created a video that told the story of the empty diorama space and why the project was so important…and crossed our fingers.

Spoiler alert: the museum-loving community came through. The crowdfunding campaign got a lot of attention, from features in Chicago Reader and John and Hank Green’s Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube to NPR’s All Things Considered. And in the end, around 1,500 contributors helped us raise more than $150,000 in just six short weeks.

Why create a new diorama?

Dioramas are three-dimensional replicas of landscapes, typically featuring habitat scenes. They may seem old school, but they’re still common in museums like ours because they put visitors face-to-face with environments and life from around the globe—creating a unique connection between people and nature.

Dioramas are also a time capsule of a region at a certain time. They transport viewers to an environment that recreates how an animal’s habitat looked at a moment in history: specimens, geography, plant life, and interactions of species. The population of striped hyenas is shrinking, and preserving them and their habitat in our collective memory will only become more important should we lose their real-world counterparts.

In fact, even the placement of the hyena diorama in Asian Mammals highlights this population decline. Akeley collected these individual specimens in Africa, but striped hyenas also lived throughout Asia at the time. Today, as a result of over-hunting and habitat loss, the striped hyenas’ range has diminished. They’re now most commonly found in parts of north Africa and the Middle East.

Making the Project Hyena Diorama happen

Those 1,500 supporters contributed the funding needed to make this project a reality—and it came to life thanks to the work of writers, curators, artists, craftspeople, and conservators on our staff. More than 50 team members worked on different parts of the project to ready the hyenas and their space.

Two taxidermied hyenas are seen from above, chewing on the bones of a dead, unidentifiable animals. The hind legs of another hyena can be seen in the background.

Hyenas have strong jaws to help them crack bones, horns, and hooves. But these scavengers don’t just eat meat—they forage for insects, or raid farmers’ fields for peaches, melons, and other crops.

Tom McNamara

The team researched the hyenas' native habitat, consulted with Curator of Mammals Larry Heaney, and meticulously crafted every aspect to ensure accuracy, from the landform and predawn sky that served as a backdrop to the diorama, to the plants and other animals in the scene. Every detail in the diorama is a conscious choice, including the bat-eared fox you’ll spot hidden among the rocks—another specimen collected on the Somali expedition and taxidermied by Akeley himself. (And keep your eyes peeled for the tiny dung beetle!)

We also added an interactive touchscreen to take this traditional art form to a new level and let you explore the diorama, its production, and the history behind the specimens.

On January 26, 2016—120 years after Akeley collected these specimens in Somalia—the new diorama opened to the public, joining the 19 other dioramas in Asian Mammals and finally completing the exhibition.

Over a century later, the displays in this hall play an important role in educating visitors on the interplay between humans and the natural world:

“As our cities and building projects expand, it’s more important than ever to remember that we are not encroaching on nature, we are part of nature,” Graslie says. “Life exists everywhere, and dioramas put us face-to-face with nature in a way that gets lost behind screens in the digital sphere.”