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After more than 80 years, dioramas at the Academy of Natural Sciences get a cleaning

The diorama featuring gorillas will be one of two to get a fresh cleaning. This week, glaziers took the glass off the display for the first time in 80 years to allow workers to access it. (Irina Zhorov/WHYY)

The diorama featuring gorillas will be one of two to get a fresh cleaning. This week, glaziers took the glass off the display for the first time in 80 years to allow workers to access it. (Irina Zhorov/WHYY)

After more than 80 years without so much as a dusting, two of the dioramas at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University are getting a good cleaning.

The exhibits featuring the takin — an animal resembling a cross between a goat and a musk ox — and the gorilla were first in line for a thorough cleaning, as well as updated lighting and labeling. Both were collected and installed in the 1930s.

“The gorilla is a particularly important animal and so we wanted to have it in the best possible condition,” said Bob Peck, a senior fellow at the academy, noting that the animal is now considered critically endangered.

“The purpose of these dioramas originally was to recapture an area that very few people would ever have a chance to visit in person,” he said. “And now it’s even harder to see these animals in the wild.”

Glaziers removed the glass from the gorilla diorama. (Irina Zhorov/WHYY)

As a team of glaziers recently lifted the glass off the gorilla display, museum employees spontaneously applauded.

“My hair stood on end, I could feel my heart beating,” said Peck. “We’re all just so pleased, so excited that these are going to be restored and brought back to their original glory.”

The workers will add new lighting to simulate a more realistic ambience of the time and terrain in which the animals are set. Then, they’ll dust every leaf and spruce up the taxidermied animals.

Finally, the museum will add new labels, some of them digital. Visitors will be able to see the animals in their natural surrounding, hear the sounds they make, and learn about their habitat.

“They’re going to be less about the gorilla than they are about the rainforest that the gorilla’s in. We’re going to look at them as ecosystems. Less about the charismatic megafauna, as we say, in the middle,” said said Jennifer Sontchi, senior director of exhibits and public spaces.

“So we’re going to tell a broader story, we’re going to talk about the other animals and plants that are in the dioramas.”

The work will continue through the spring, and the public can watch through specially installed glass.

The pilot project is funded through special grants, Sontchi said. Funds for the gorilla diorama makeover comes from the same family that collected the animals: the Vanderbilts.

The academy eventually wants to see all of its more than 30 dioramas undergo a thorough restoration.

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