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Picture Show: Museology Revisited

When Richard Ross's visual exploration of natural history museums, Museology, was published by Aperture in 1989, its hallmark...

When Richard Ross's visual exploration of natural history museums, Museology, was published by Aperture in 1989, its hallmark was a series of photographs of museum dioramas depicting animals in built environments. These dioramas, generally set behind a wall of glass that divided the viewer from the object of his or her observation, were constructed so as to capture the essence of an animal within its natural setting. In recent years, however, when Ross returned to those museums, he found that some of the walls had literally been torn down, and the dioramas had been discarded in favor of starker, more open settings for the animals. The fauna, it seemed, had lost their flora.Whether disappearance of environments and dioramas reflects a change in how we learn or evolving curator tastes is unclear, but the shift is both noteworthy and something of a shame. Though it has motivated Ross to take his camera back into museums. "In the future, the whole concept of textbook learning may change so drastically that the need for an individual diorama that captures a moment of space, time, and environment may not be there any more," says Ross. "We're not there yet, though. Right now, we're in a transit, and the dioramas have distinctly changed."What follows is a selection of both original and new photographs.


American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1977.

American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1977.

Gorilla diorama, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1977

Giraffes, Museum of Natural History, Paris, France, 1982

Museum of Natural History, Paris, France, 1982

Museum of Natural History, Paris, France, 1982

Museum of Natural History, Paris, France, 1982

Museum of Natural Sciences, La Plata, Argentina, 1984

British Museum of Natural History, London, England, 1985

Booths Bird Museum, Brighton, England, 1986

Rhino Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois, 1986

Africa exhibit, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., 2009

Elephant, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., 2009

Africa exhibit, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., 2009

Hippopotamus, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., 2009

Buffalo, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., 2009