Dioramas, Elves, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 by sdileonardi

I feel compelled to write about a media-archaeological experience I have been having on a regular basis for the last two years without knowing it. The fact that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre participated in both the historical art of diorama and the development of camera technology speaks to the constant attempt to represent history through optic media. Although, Ernst is resolute in emphasizing the veritable distance between subjective discourses of historical representation, such as the diorama, and the “cold, mechanical gaze” of the camera with its ability to capture time and space less subjectively.

 Getting down to it, the experience I have been sharing with my toddler for the last couple years involves the 90 dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. We have stood in front of every one, identifying the animals and learning about their natural environments on an almost weekly basis, and frankly, my kid can’t get enough. The museum’s website contributes to a media-archaeological understanding of the dioramas through their interesting reference to an alternate medium of information technology: “Like three-dimensional “postcards” from places near and far, they capture moments in time, showcasing the world’s wondrous animals and the delicate ecosystems in which they live” (www.dmns.org). The postcard, while attempting to relay details and descriptions of a certain time and place, actually takes part in the symbolic imagination of reality, as Ernst would describe it, conveying instead a subjective instantiation of one person’s experience- in this case the diorama’s artist Kent Pendleton. Pendleton draws attention to this anthropocentric quality of his art by being ironic, since it “displays its own artificiality, technical fictionality, and artifactuality” (52). In fact, if you ever visit the museum, when handing your ticket over for admission ask for an “Elf Map.” Apparently, Pendleton made use of the countless hours he spent creating these dioramas by hiding tiny elves in the jungle foliage and desert rocks. If you can manage to spot these cleverly camouflaged imps you will notice their beaming smiles and waving hands, ironically signaling the fabrication of “real” natural environments. The conflation of real and fantastic gestures toward Ernst’s understanding of the diorama as a forerunner of the photograph despite its reliance on artificial light and not an actual chemical captivation of real light processes.

Of course, my son only wants to see some animals, and despite the ironic perspective offered by Pendleton, we succeed in this goal every time.  

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One comment on “Dioramas, Elves, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

  1. willm2 says:

    Those little guys hiding in the dioramas are clearly gnomes, not elves. Just another example of anthropocentric subjectivity on the part of the Kent Pendleton and the museum.

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