Botany Hall is situated in a corner of the second floor of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, accessible through the North American Wildlife section. Inside, eight window dioramas dating from the 1920s through the 1970s depict seven different biomes of the United States. In each, a richly-painted, curved wall supports a highly detailed three-dimensional scene, in which every individual leaf, stem, insect wing, and bit of moss is hand-crafted and botanically accurate.
Ottmar and Hanne Von Fuehrer were responsible for creating the first five dioramas of Botany Hall in the 1920s and 1930s under the curatorship of Otto Jennings (Pennsylvania Spring Flora, Arizona Desert, Florida Jungle, Alpine Meadow, and Pennsylvania Bog dioramas). Ottmar Von Fuehrer was primarily responsible for the backgrounds and overall design, and Hanne Von Fuehrer made the individual models. Their work was based on field expeditions to collect specimens, which were either used as models for flowers and plants in wax and paper, or were preserved themselves as part of the display. Jennings conceived a broad vision for a hall that as a whole showed how different levels of heat and moisture lead to distinct environments. Each diorama, or “group,” as they were more often called, was conceived as a unified whole, in which all parts work together, both aesthetically and as a natural environment. In the 1960s, the Von Fuehrers were assisted by Elizabeth Niedringhaus to create a sixth diorama depicting Presque Isle, and Niedringhaus then took over and worked with the next Curators of Botany, Leroy K. Henry and then Dorothy Pearth, to craft two further groups with the help of new techniques of her own development and a team of volunteers: the Hemlock-Northern Hardwood Forest and the Kitchen Herb Garden.
This map shows the locations represented by Botany Hall:
This form of art and scientific display has a long history, and involves specific visual strategies that create an immersive experience for viewers. The backgrounds extend beyond the window frames, allowing the viewer the impression that they are looking into another fully articulated world. The artists paid special attention to the places where the two-dimensional meets the three-dimensional, and employed certain visual devices to make a seamless transition and enhance illusion, such as carefully placed plants or rocks, play with light and shadow, and the specimens. The exhibition team designed these dioramas based on a complex network of intersecting criteria. They prioritized fidelity to what would be found in nature, the creation of a complete and representative picture of a particular biome, and the presentation of a harmonious aesthetic. The achieved effect speaks to a yearning for a version of nature that can be harnessed and dominated by human eyes and hands.
It can be difficult to get a sense of the history of these objects in the context of the museum itself. This digital exhibition aims to explore the broader historical framework of how the dioramas operate in an interdisciplinary manner. What is the role of crafted objects in the exchange of scientific knowledge? How might we describe the authority of scientific displays without obscuring their culturally-specific artistic origins? How can natural history museums make the histories of objects in their collection visible to viewers? Can digital infrastructures offer new solutions?
This website explores these questions within the specific context of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Botany Hall while also considering the broader museum landscape. Furthermore, it positions the Hall as a focal point for interdisciplinary expert knowledge, documenting the research process as well as outcomes. Ultimately, it aims to provide various perspectives on Botany Hall, compare the dioramas with objects in other collections, and unveil the histories of these objects, wherever available. We combine our backgrounds in art history and information science to explore how formal concerns intertwine with scientific ones and to look at creative ways of contextualizing the information contained within these objects. We explore the interdisciplinary goals that drive the creation of educational objects for natural history museums, and the implications of the material presence of these objects in museum collections over time. The Hall of Botany at CMNH is itself the product of interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaborative work. Since its early days, the Hall has provided opportunities for joint ventures between CMNH and the University of Pittsburgh. We see ourselves as contributing to this continuing relationship.