Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

No Shoes in the Diorama

Nick has gone where millions of children yearn to be: inside the dioramas at AMNH. Here’s a quick Q&A about life –inside- the box.

by Rebecca Widiss

NickFishLast week’s NYTimes profile of Stephen Christopher Quinn, MVP of the American Museum of Natural History’s diorama team, made me wish I knew someone like that. Then I remembered… I do. I just hadn’t ever asked him about it, until now.

Which dioramas did you work on?

I worked most intensely in the Hall of Ocean Life, the room with the big whale in it. I was on the diorama restoration team. And I was involved with six or seven of them down there… the Dolphin diorama, the Diving Birds, the two-story Andros Coral Reef, the Squid and the Whale, the Tiger Shark, the Deep Sea divers. Oh, and the Otter. I was in the Otter a lot.

What was it like to work on the dolphin diorama?

That was really a cool one. I think there were three [glass] panels. Those all came off.

Then we had to go in and take the water surface out. It was this round fiberglass material. But it was one continuous piece. So we had to cut it up into sections and pull the sections out. I’m trying to remember how we even did that. I think we used a tool called a “Sawzall.“ God it was a pain. We had to wear those Tyvek paper suits and Tyvek paper shoes and masks and goggles because the fiberglass shards would break.

Once that place was completely empty—no dolphins, no water—we built a wooden platform. But the floor was also curved, so you had to compensate for that. Once the whole thing was built, which was a big process unto itself, we started doing the background painting. Then we pulled all that wood out, moved the water surfaces in, and put the dolphins back.

It was a major group of people. The water surfaces were made new out in Paterson, New Jersey by the same team that mounted Sue, the T Rex. It went back in in sections. The way they link to each other is kind of hidden by the dolphins in the diorama.

Wait a minute. Did you paint the dolphins?

The dolphins were all ready made. They may have gotten a new paint job. But I wasn’t a part of that. I think they did them out in Jersey. But we took the dolphins out and put them in. And we also had to make storage spaces for them. There were like a dozen of them. So we made these crazy bunk beds where they could all sort of lie down and be kept.

What would be your top 3 tips for making a great diorama?

  1. Don’t make any of your decisions on the canvas – One of the great things about the Dolphin diorama was this guy Sean. He was Batman and I was Robin. And that’s even giving myself a lot of credit. Sean never needed help. He made an amazing scale model of the entire thing—all the little dolphins, all the water surfaces. He painted it so it looked like, if you had Barbie dolls, this is the museum that they would visit. But he also got the curvature of the back wall correct. It’s really something that took mathematical know-how, as well as artistic know-how, as well as knowing how to work with tools. So, yeah, plan it out. Make sure you know every step that you’re doing before you work on the final product. Because the anxiety of getting something wrong—that’s always in the public eye—is so great that once it starts to go bad, it’s hard to correct it. Do all your learning in a private, controlled, smaller setting.
  2. You can hide a lot of stuff with plants – The otter was also really fun because the otter was really cute. And he was an old specimen. You can’t collect them anymore. So this was a rare thing to have. But a lot of its fur didn’t look so good. We had to cleverly cover over his body with leaves of kelp. Sort of position him in a way that made him look more presentable. That was fun.
  3. Just be really careful – When you scratch a surface. When you chip something away. When you go in with a paintbrush to touch up one spot. Inevitably that spot grows. You touch it up, but you realize that the paint you’ve used doesn’t quite match the original paint. So you touch it up a little bit more. And suddenly what started off as an inch is now eight inches. It’s really hard to make yourself be that patient, and be that careful. But I imagine there’s an analogy there with surgery or making models. Anything where you just want to do something once. I guess it’s like the doctor’s mantra: do no harm. Go in and get out and don’t break anything.

Did you ever break anything?

Sure, coral breaks, but then you fix it, and then some other coral breaks, and you fix that, too! Every time you move into one of those densely populated dioramas, you risk breaking something. It’s like walking through the woods; you rub against branches and sticks and they break. Only in a diorama, you have to got back and repair them all!

Leaving a finished diorama is kind of like backing out of a room full of sleeping dogs. You try to back out very, very slowly and quietly, so that you don’t wake any of them up. And then you carefully put the glass on. And you never go back inside again.  Then, one day, years later, you visit that diorama and you look through the glass and you’re like, “What? There’s a broken piece of antler coral in there, or a big chip of paint is missing from the wall. I guess entropy rules the universe!” Things will fall apart, whether you touch them or not, which is a significant scientific idea, so there the museum is, indirectly teaching us something about the universe yet again. Thanks, museum!

Were there any lessons you learned the hard way?

Yeah. But they weren’t diorama-related. They were more New York job-related. Like, always give yourself an extra half hour on the subway.

What should I have asked you?

When I look at those dioramas, it’s hard to feel that I was ever really in there. I thought that I’d go back to the Hall and look around and feel like, yeah, I was in there, I did that. I made that little sea urchin. But, when I’m there, it feels like someone else might have made it. It doesn’t feel like its mine. It feels like it belongs to whomever is looking at it at the time, which is kind of nice. I guess it’s what people say when they write books. The second you’re done with it, it no longer belongs to you. That was a surprise.

INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED.

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This entry was posted on April 6, 2013 by in Art, natural history and tagged , , , .
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