My Favorite Museum Exhibit: A collection of beloved collections

Full list of posts updated Monday, February 6. This is the final update.

Last week, I asked BoingBoing readers to send me images and stories about your favorite museum exhibits—beloved displays and collections squirreled away in museums that might not have a big profile outside your state or region. The challenge was triggered by an awesome photo of a mummified Ice Age bison on display in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But this series also has roots in my own love of the museum exhibits that defined my childhood. Over the coming week, I’ll be posting more “My Favorite Museum Exhibit” entries. I’ll update the list here, and this post will be the one-stop place to check if you want to read them all. But I also wanted to use this space to share one of my favorite museum exhibits—the Panorama of North American Plants and Animals at the University of Kansas’ Dyche Museum of Natural History.

Taxidermy is not normally my thing. I love dinosaur bones, but dioramas always make me feel like I’d rather just be at a zoo, or watching a nature special on TV. This is especially true of the “local flora and fauna” sort of museum dioramas. I have seen squirrels, thanks. But the Panorama is something else, a work that transcends its genre to become true art and a temple to Maker creativity.

The Panorama is the work of Lewis Lindsay Dyche, a 19-century KU professor. Dyche originally constructed the exhibit for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It featured 121 animals and took two years to complete. Scientific American called the Panorama one of the most remarkable exhibits at the Fair. By all accounts, Dyche was a very good taxidermist. But his taxidermy work is only part of what makes the Panorama so impressive.

Instead of presenting a single scene, the Panorama flows, capturing every North American biome from the Arctic to the jungle. It wraps around the room, almost a full 360 degrees. As you follow the circle, polar bears and seals fade seamlessly into bunnies on the tundra, then aspen forests full of bobcats, and on into craggy cliffs dotted with mountain goats. As a child, it was my first brush with the realization that where I lived was only one part of something bigger—if I walked far enough north, I’d find icy wastes, far enough south and there’d be vine-covered trees filled with monkeys. What the Panorama offered was perspective. Before you’re old enough to really comprehend “spaceship Earth” you can comprehend this.

The video at the top of this post only shows about 2/3 of the Panorama. You’re missing the desert and jungle areas. Below, you can see a close up that shows off the prairie and Rocky Mountain areas in a little more detail.

According to Jennifer Humphrey, the KU Natural History Museum’s communications director, the Panorama is one of only three dioramas like it in the whole world. It’s not the only thing I love at that Museum. But it’s definitely a big part of what makes the Museum unique.

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Other entries in the “My Favorite Museum Exhibit” series:

http://boingboing.net/2012/01/30/my-favorite-museum-exhibit-5.html

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