Design Part 1: Style

If you just finished reading our sections on research, you’re all caught up on the various tools that scientists use to determine how environments might have looked in the past. In this section, we’re onto phase two — the design process. This is where we go from compiling lists of plants and making notes on terrain, to creating an actual image.

The Elements of Style (and Inspiration)

Before I put pencil to paper (or pen-tool to virtual artboard, as in my case), I first had to get a sense for what the museum had in mind. How did they want their dioramas to look? I came into the museum renovation fairly late in the game, so quite a few stylistic decisions had already been made, but there was still plenty to be done. The Cenozoic exhibits (65.5 million years ago to the present) in particular were empty, just waiting to be filled with Wyoming’s ancient mammals. We wanted these alcoves to fit in with the look-and-feel of the rest of the museum, which meant we were going for a streamlined, modern look. Rather than adopting the incredibly intricate, detailed mode of the traditional diorama — such as you would find at the American Museum of Natural History or in the African Hall at the California Academy of Sciences — we opted for something reminiscent of the cases in the Hall of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Clean lines, solid colors, and generalized outlines of vegetation give you an immediate sense of “jungle” or “grassland” or “desert”.

traditional dioramas

Two examples of highly detailed dioramas. On the left there’s James Perry Wilson painting in the Mule Deer display at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by Thanos Johnson). On the right, a visitor enjoys the view at the California Academy of Sciences (photo by Daniel Furon).

Digitally-rendered backdrops and displays in the Smithsonian's Hall of Mammals

Compare the painted dioramas in the previous photos to the new displays in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Mammals, shown here. There’s not as much detail, but they’re just as spiffy.

There are a few main reasons why we went for a more abstract aesthetic. For one thing, there’s no way that the specimens on display would be able to look like elements of a natural scene, since they’re fossils and casts, sometimes incomplete, and we can’t pose them to interact with detailed scenery. All the previous museums I mentioned had the benefit of working with taxidermic specimens, that look realistic when you put them in a background, amongst the foliage. There are institutions like the Gray Fossil Museum that pose entire, articulated skeletons against a detailed backdrop so that they’re interacting, and it looks amazing. Alas, many of our specimens aren’t complete (no sinkholes here), and we don’t have that much space to work with since the display cases are pretty shallow. Did I mention that we’re also on a tight budget? Abstract backgrounds seemed like they’d be easier, cheaper and faster to produce than highly detailed ones (so we thought — more on that later).

skeleton mount diorama at the Gray Fossil Museum

Run, tapir, run!

We also wanted the display pieces themselves to stand out: rather than get wrapped up in some detail of the backdrop, we wanted visitors to pay attention to the skulls and skeletons, since the specimens themselves can tell some pretty amazing stories. Also, though we can glean quite a lot about the past, there are still some things we don’t know about ancient plant assemblages, like what certain extinct flowers may have looked like, or the exact composition of vegetation in a given area. Instead of re-creating a photo-realistic image of a scene we’ve never seen, we wanted a background that would give a general impression; it should be detailed enough to accurately represent major plant families and spatial distribution, but not so detailed as to distract from the specimens. We didn’t try to get the morphology of, say, an ancient palm exactly right, but we did focus on evoking the environment that the specimens were living in. We’re hoping you’ll glance at the background, see the generalized outlines of palms, and think: “oh wow, Wyoming’s climate was pretty tropical back then!”

These were our rationalizations for the crisp, somewhat abstract style we chose, but it could have gone many different ways — we could have opted for TONS of realism, and made just as solid a case for the decision. Style involves personal preference, after all. In any case, once we’d chosen our direction, it was time to get to work. To find out what that entailed, well, read the next post!

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