Photographer Breathes Life Into Natural History Dioramas

Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs natural history museum dioramas

Inspired by his first trip to the American Museum of Natural History, Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has spent the last four decades delicately constructing black and white photos of natural history museum dioramas. He shot the scenes as though they were real, omitting the framing wall, avoiding glare and reflections to remove any indication that the subjects and habitat were not real.

The result is an elegant book that breathes life and depth into inanimate recreations of nature and human evolution.

Dioramas by Hiroshi SugimotoHiroshi Sugimoto: Dioramas

“Upon first arriving in New York in 1974, I did the tourist thing. Eventually I visited the Natural History Museum, where I made a curious discovery: the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I’d found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.” – Hiroshi Sugimoto


Natural history museum diorama photography by Hiroshi

Natural history museum diorama photography by Hiroshi

Natural history museum diorama photography by Hiroshi

Natural history museum diorama photography by Hiroshi

Dioramas is available right here.

Lonesome George: How The AMNH Turned the Last of a Species Into Taxidermy

Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island giant tortoise, just ended his run at the American Museum of Natural History. The 200-pound tortoise was brought into captivity in the Galápagos in 1972. Despite on-going efforts to find him a mate, another Pinta Island tortoise was never found. When he died of natural causes in 2012, at the age of 102 years old, master taxidermist George Dante was tasked with the unique challenge of preserving the last of a species both for beauty as well as scientific study.

How was that achieved?

Go behind the scenes with the AMNH team in this short documentary to see the taxidermy process that brought Lonesome George back to life.

Preserving Lonesome George

A taxidermist works on Lonesome George at the American Museum of Natural History

Now that the exhibit has ended, Lonesome George will return to his home on the Galápagos Islands.

"Chrysalis" by Carl Akeley

Naturalist Carl Akeley’s Sculpture Reveals the Inner Humanity of Gorillas

Sculpted in 1924 by taxidermist and gorilla advocate Carl Akeley, “Chrysalis” represents his belief in the humanity of the apes.

Carl Akeley killed a leopard with his bare hands

Famed Taxidermist Carl Akeley Turns 150


Carl Akeley, the grandfather of modern taxidermy, turns 150 this week.

Recently, tales of the legendary tough guy have been circulating around the web, recounting his first expedition for the Chicago Field Museum in 1896, when he was attacked by a leopard. Akeley was hunting ostriches at dusk, when he took a shot at what he believed to be a warthog rustling around in the tall grasses. To his surprise, a leopard jumped out at him, which he managed to fight off and kill with his bare hands. He is said to have strangled the animal while his arm was down its throat.

Legendary taxidermist Carl Akeley stands with the leopard he killed with his bare hands

But Akeley is best known as an accomplished taxidermist, sculptor and inventor, pioneering many new methods of taxidermy and museum dioramas still in use today.

He began making a name for himself in New York, where he earned a place in the spotlight with his mount of the famous Barnum & Bailey circus elephant Jumbo, who was struck by a locomotive. He went on to the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1886, where he created the world’s first complete habitat diorama.

For Akeley, taxidermy was a tool for conservation. This meant dangerous expeditions into the African wild to study the species, document their habitats, and bring down most majestic specimens he could find for display in museum dioramas. His work for the American Museum of Natural History lead to the creation of his masterpiece, the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

Among his contributions to the taxidermy world are the use of lightweight mannequins rather than sawdust to mount the skins, and the study of anatomy to achieve more life-like work.

Akeley died of a fever in the Congo during his fifth expedition to Africa.

Habitat Dioramas as Early Tools in Wildlife Conservation

For more on the life of Carl Akeley check out Kingdom Under Glass and Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.

Carl Akeley’s Muskrat Habitat Diorama

Taxidermist Carl Akeley created the muskrats, the world's first habitat diorama, in 1890 at the Milwaukee Public Museum

I grew up in awe of the muskrat display and other astounding (and often creepy) dioramas at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Though I have made many expeditions into it’s dark, fascinating labyrinth throughout my life, it was not until I read Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life that I realized the significance of this work.

Legendary taxidermist Carl Akeley created the muskrat case in 1890 while working at the Milwaukee Public Museum. It was the world’s first habitat diorama, and went on to inspire exhibits around the world.

Muskrat taxidermy habitat diorama created by Carl Akeley at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Muskrat taxidermy habitat diorama created by Carl Akeley at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Muskrat taxidermy habitat diorama created by Carl Akeley at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Akeley eventually ended up at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. His masterpiece is the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, though he died of a fever during an expedition in the Congo before it was completed.