Visitors Can Witness Creation of Peabody Diorama

Those visiting the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History between Feb. 27 and April 25 will have the rare opportunity to witness the creation of a major museum diorama, one day at a time.

The evolving exhibition — titled “A Diorama Takes Shape: Bringing the Genius of James Perry Wilson to Life” — will feature the work of scientists and artists from the Peabody and the New Haven area, as well as that of Wilson, the artist who created the museum’s other dioramas.

Dioramas combine three-dimensional foreground material with a curved background wall and domed ceiling to tell the story of an ecosystem.

“They are brought to life by the artists who create them,” write the exhibit organizers. “James Perry Wilson was a master of this unique art as this exhibition will reveal. A particular gift, evident in his masterpieces at the Yale Peabody Museum and American Museum of Natural History, was his ability to draw the eye effortlessly from the specimens in the foreground to the painted background and into a vista that seems to stretch endlessly beyond the horizon.

The new diorama will feature as its background a newly acquired painting by Wilson, “Sand Dunes at Point Pelee,” which will also be the title of the completed diorama. Donated to the Peabody by the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada, it is a prized example of Wilson’s work.

“A Diorama Takes Shape” allows visitors to witness what normally occurs “behind the scenes.” With tools and materials in tow, museum preparator Michael Anderson (sculptor of the Peabody’s Torosaurus) will literally make the exhibition his workshop during the eight weeks of the exhibition. Working with trained volunteers, many of them local artists, he will prepare the plants and other foreground elements for the display and place them in the diorama while visitors watch.

Anderson’s blog (at documents the involvement of the local arts community and other interested volunteers, and describes in detail the intricacies of preparing the foreground materials, a process that has already begun. His entries detail working with Alexis Brown on freeze-drying and painting juniper branches; with Michael Bobbie on the sculpting of Solomon Seal leaves; and Dorie Petrochko on painting the cast of a black-throated blue warbler. (See related story, below.)

The exhibit includes a short film produced by award-winning documentary filmmaker and New Haven resident Ann Prum. The subject is diorama making and Anderson’s own work as a preparator.

Each of Wilson’s dioramas seeks to portray a rich habitat full of natural beauty — with each site depicted at a particular season and time of day when the animals on display could be found.

Point Pelee in southwestern Ontario, Canada, is renowned as the best location in inland North America to observe the northward migration of songbirds, especially the huge and diverse numbers of warbler species that pass through on their way north from Central and South America. (This migration can also be seen locally at places such as East Rock Park in New Haven.)

Also featured in the exhibit is a scale model for the Peabody’s Timber Line Diorama (also known as the Bighorn Sheep Diorama), the original of which is on display on the third floor of the museum. The model illustrates how Wilson managed the complexities of painting on a curved surface.

At the end of the exhibition, the Point Pelee diorama will go into storage until it can be reinstalled permanently during the Peabody Museum’s planned renovation of the Bird Hall.

The exhibition can be viewed during regular museum hours: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Easter Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults; $6 for seniors 65 and over; and $5 for children aged 3 to 18 and college students. Children under three are admitted free, as are all visitors on Thursdays from 2 to 5 p.m.

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is located at 170 Whitney Ave. For information, visit

Museum preparator’s ‘Surprise in the Juniper’

The following is the Jan. 26 post from museum preparator Michael Anderson’s blog, (See related story, above.)

I got my air gun cleaned this morning so I could spray latex on the juniper branches. I thinned latex with ammonia and water to the point where it looked like milk, poured it in the air gun, and started spraying. Half way through I noticed a fluttering moth or butterfly up at the light in the spray booth. I stopped spraying and grabbed a plastic container and caught a BUTTERFLY! We collected these branches in the middle of January. What’s a butterfly doing coming out of the juniper now?

What is so cool about working in a natural history museum is that I am able to run right over to someone who knows more than anyone would care to know about anything having to do with natural history. In this case, I ran to Larry Gall, an entomologist with a specialty in butterflies. Larry took a quick look and said, “Oh, that’s Polygonia c-album and it is one of the few butterflies that hibernate whole, as an adult, not in a cocoon. I asked Larry what’s a Polygonia c-album and he said, “it’s known commonly as an Eastern Comma.”

Larry thought it was too active — beating itself up on the side of the container — so he walked over to the refrigerator and stuck it in. After maybe a minute or minute and a half with the butterfly slightly chilled and a lot more serene, Larry lifted it out of the container between his fingers. He showed me and two students the little silver comma on the inside of the wings. He showed us all 6 legs (2 are reduced and hidden in the front), he unrolled its 3/4-inch proboscis with an insect pin. Then to demonstrate the clinginess of the feet, he stuck it on each of our noses! Sure enough, he grabbed right on.

Larry suggested I take it outside and put it on an evergreen tree or something with a shaggy bark so it can climb into a crevice and overwinter until spring. I took it over to the President’s house — he has lots of evergreens bordering Whitney Ave — and let it climb out onto a tree. I must say, for all the abuse it took, it looked no worse for wear.

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