GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 41-6
Presentation Time: 3:00 PM


ROSENBERG, Gary D., Earth Sciences Department, Indiana University-Purdue University, 723 W. Michigan St., SL 118, Indianapolis, IN 46202; Geology, Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53233,

Carl Akeley (1864—1926) started a revolution in museum exhibit design when he created his muskrat diorama for the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1890. It was the first museum exhibit to show an animal in its natural habitat, and the first to have a realistic background painted to create the illusion of depth and continuity of the animal’s environment. Since the Scientific Revolution began and especially during the “Age of the Marvelous” in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, collections of natural and human made objects were displayed in Kunst- and Wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinets organized if at all in ways that we might now consider strange, without a modern understanding of systematics, environmental, or cultural context.

Akeley’s genius as a taxidermist gave the dioramas an unsurpassed realism. Instead of stuffing animal skins with straw and cotton as taxidermists had done for centuries, Akeley mounted the skins over armatures that he steadily improved as he moved from Milwaukee to the Field Museum in Chicago, and finally to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He modeled ancillary items such as plants in the diorama with obsessive detail. The results were unprecedented evocations of living animals actively engaged in their ecological niches, and became known as the “Milwaukee Style.”

Akeley’s focus was the same as that of the great minds of the Scientific Revolution and it’s the same as scientists’ today: the geometry of nature, its structure and spatial relationships. Akeley showed not only the form and structure of animals in his dioramas but he defined the environmental space that encompassed them as well. Akeley’s focus was more mundane than Descartes’ res extensa or Hawkings’ dark matter between cosmic bodies, but Akeley for the first time showed the general public that they could see the form and structure of animals and the space between in an altogether new way. Today we call that vision ecology and paleo ecology.