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Protest Moans and Moose Urine: Tales from the American Museum of Natural History

by Allison Meier on December 20, 2013

Diorama of fighting moose in the American Museum of Natural History (courtesy AMNH)

Diorama of fighting moose in the American Museum of Natural History (courtesy AMNH)

The American Museum of Natural History Museum, along with WNET, has launched an online web series to show that there’s more to their dioramas than dead animals.

Called, appropriately, Dioramathe PBS digital series kicked off earlier this month with a zippy exploration of “Why Moose Fight,” with the AMNH Alaskan moose diorama as a launching point. The 1939-era display is the largest in the Hall of North American Mammals, which was restored in a project completed last fall, and shows two massive male moose frozen in combat while a female looks on. There’s evidently some mating competition happening here, but the video with Curator of Mammals Ross MacPhee, who describes the dioramas as “behavior in action,” reveals much more. From the scraggly grass to the expanse of painted blue sky, the scene is a meticulous re-creation of what some early 20th-century explorers encountered out during the “rut” season, aka moose mating time.

What's Inside the Termite Nest (video still via AMNH)

“What’s Inside the Termite Nest” (video still via AMNH)

It’s too bad the series doesn’t focus more on the actual history of the dioramas, where artists like the talented painter Fred Scherer (who recently passed away) and the taxidermy pioneer and man vs. nature hero Carl Akeley  — who once killed an attacking leopard by punching it in the face — brought the remote wilderness to vivid “life” in New York City. However, the moose and the next topic, the termite mound in an impala diorama in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, are touchstones for broader discussions of animal science. These are done by the museum staff, and are full of their fair share of fascinating facts (the female moose wails a “protest moan” when she’s totally unimpressed with the males in her vicinity, imploring other prospective suitors within earshot to get over ASAP). And this is just the beginning: the next video will take on the Andros Coral Reef Diorama in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, one of the many beautiful corners of the massive museum hall that often get lost beneath the shadow of the giant blue whale.

You can check out the “Why Moose Fight” video below and then, on your next museum trip, share with your fellow visitors the details of how the moose use urine to court each other. And if you’re really into it, the museum is having an “Art of Diorama” class that starts at the end of January where you’ll make your own diorama, presumably on a less epic scale.

All the current episodes of the ongoing PBS Diorama series with the American Museum of Natural History are available online.

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  • Fiftyseven

    It’s great that this series is raising interest in this stunning form of art. Indeed, the focus is on the biology and life forms rather than diorama technique, but who is going to care where the tie-up area is located in a diorama?

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