Photographs taken of the rhinoceros dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. The specimens in the black rhinoceros exhibit were taxidermied by Robert Rockwell and the background painted by Robert Cane, who travelled to Kenya with the Campbell expedition in 1937-8 to make sketches for the backdrop of Mount Kenya.
James Perry Wilson started the painted background for the white rhinoceros diorama in December 1936 and completed it seven months later. It is staged in the Upper Uele River, Congo, just below the Sudanese border. To sustain the illusion of the endless vista and prevent the rhino forms casting shadows on the background, they were painted white on the side invisible to the viewer. The rhinoceroses, one of which was collected by Herbert Lang in 1911-15, were taxidermied by James L Clark in 1934 (Quinn, S. Windows on Nature).
To be a viewer in a museum of natural history is, more often than not, to assume the role of observer, witnessing either a distant past or an arrested collection of specimens. It is to position oneself as outside of the cabinet, outside of the taxonomic boundaries of glass and, as such, distanced from a continuum of speciation.
Dioramas, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1822, and popularised in the early nineteenth century, were initially theatrical devices that relied on the complex manipulation of light to transform a constructed landscape. The lure of this device was its ability to seduce and deceive the viewer into believing the veracity of the observed scene. The parallel development of the diorama and photography was evident in early diorama construction, which co-opted various depths of field and singular viewpoints, while more recent dioramas use tilted perspective and an infinity curve with the inclusion of real objects to present the illusion of recessive space. While the spectacle of the diorama was short lived as a purely theatrical device, it was to reappear within natural history museums towards the end of the 19th century. Carl Akeley, best known for his contribution to the American Museum of Natural History, New York, is credited with the first habitat diorama at the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1890. The Akeley Hall of African Mammals opened at the American Museum of Natural History ten years after his death in the Congo, where he is buried.