For city kids raised in an ecosystem of cockroaches and pigeons, the local natural-history museum can often provide the only glimpse of nature in its pristine form. As a result, such museums have a rich tradition of dioramas, those kitschy reproductions of natural environments featuring stuffed endangered animals, plastic plants, and painted backgrounds.
The American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, recently published a treasure trove of archival photographs on the Web. The highlights are the antique dioramas, which inevitably end up revealing more about how we imagine nature than they do about nature itself. There’s a chest-pounding gorilla and a majestic golden eagle, gazing out at its two-dimensional landscape. The animals all seem so serene and peaceful, except when their faces are frozen in expressions of panic — probably because they just noticed the gun.
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