Academy of Natural Sciences puts itself on exhibit through dioramas

This weekend, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will open an exhibition of dioramas, revealing how dioramas are made. In effect, putting natural history museums under glass.

Lori Nix, part of the team behind them, is known for making highly detailed dioramas of post-apocalyptic urban scenes. When she wants to take a break from that, she makes these miniature dioramas about dioramas.

She prefers not to leave her Brooklyn apartment. The artist makes creates narrative scenes featuring animals from all over the world, but she and her partner Kathleen Gerber make them without leaving home.

“We have a table saw on our kitchen table, a chop saw under the kitchen table,” said Nix during a visit to the Academy to drop off her latest diorama. “One bathroom is for film processing, the other bathroom is paintbrush cleaning. The back bedroom is the spray room, for airbrushing work. It’s a mess.”

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Each scene, rendered through imaginative use of toys and crafting supplies, contains a joke. One features beavers cutting the lumber for their own diorama, another is a tiny office full of miniature stuffed birds looking accusingly at a bucket of fried chicken on the ornithologist’s desk. “It’s the guy who takes care of the bird room, and he’s chowing down on the finger lickin’ good chicken,” she said.

After Nix takes a photograph of her diorama, she breaks it down and uses the material to make the next one. An exhibition of her photographs, called Unnatural History, opens this weekend.

It will include one actual handmade diorama, which barely survived the bumpy car trip from Brooklyn to Philadelphia. Nix had a bottle of Elmer’s glue to make last-minute fixes.

“I can’t get the glue to come out of this,” said Nix, helplessly handing the Elmer’s to Gerber, who set about gluing a tiny artist palette into the hand of a deep-sea diver figure posed in the act of painting a picture of underwater coral. It comes from a real photograph of a researcher in the 1930s who stood on the ocean floor and painted a canvas that would be used to make a backdrop of a museum diorama.

The plein-air scene is not a joke — museum researchers actually painted underwater.

“They were going on safari and painting, and they actually went to the bottom of the ocean to paint,” said Nix.

Nix and Gerber make dioramas for the camera, but in person you can see that it is just made of Styrofoam, with fish hung by wires, the air bubbles is a string of cheap paste jewelry, and some of the coral are plastic trees from a model train set. “There’s nothing precious about what we do,” said Nix.

Nix hopes the diorama will appeal the children and teenagers – the Academy’s chief audience – who will be inspired to make their own dioramas out of things lying around their homes.

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