Aam 05 Diormas Tunnicliffe



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AAM 05 Diormas Tunnicliffe


WHAT DO DIORAMAS TELL VISITORS? A STUDY AT THE HISTORY OF WILDLIFE DIORAMA AT THE MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND
Sue Dale Tunnicliffe, PhD. Institute of Education, University of London s.tunnicliffe@ioe.ac.uk

Introduction


Natural History Dioramas had their hey-day in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Powell Cotton Museum in Kent has an excellent collection of dioramas and there were three Rowland Ward dioramas at the end of the Evolution Gallery in the Natural History Museum London. The Carl Ackley dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York are still a tremendous visitor attraction. Los Angeles County Natural History Museum is being rebuilt and redesigned but they are keeping their dioramas. A number of museums in the USA have extended their dioramas e.g. Denver, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Boston, The Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia are working on their dioramas in this way, by placing artifacts outside the diorama on a shelf which lead the visitors into the topic of the dioramas. The most comprehensive study of dioramas was conducted by Karen Wolins for her PhD study, which was published as a book. Her work is summarised (Wolins, 1989). Lara Bjork explored Wildlife Dioramas and natural history museums in her Master’s thesis (Bjork, 2000).

When people look at exhibits, be they in a science museum, botanic garden or zoo or specimens on a field trip they construct meaning from what they see, what so ever it is, animal, vegetable or mineral or constructed artefact, and they label it (Bruner et al. 1956). People view the object, identify it and make their sense of it within a context of meaning. Then they may raise questions about it, ask why, how and what and hypotheses. This sequence in visitor’s verbal interactions with exhibits has been identified through studying conversations and analysing their content and usage. Visitors, as a museum audience, interpret exhibitions using a variety of personal and cultural influences view (Scott, 2005).

The new Scottish diorama was planned on a number of levels from the simple story of how habitats changed in Scotland following the last ice age but also seasonality, ecological interactions, and adaptations to the environment. In selecting the poses and interactions between animals the links between different plants and animal species were emphasized. The intention was to make the animals not easily seen so visitors had to work to see them all. The animals showed rare and transient behaviours that highlight particular morphological or behavioural adaptations. The labelling devices were intended to avoid a bank of labels and be flexible in usage. (A. Kitchener 2005).

Three main ways of analysing pupil conversations, which apply to any visitors at exhibits, have been identified (Tunnicliffe and Reiss, 1999). Using a systemic network approach the content of a conversation in terms of the context in which the exhibit is shown and a description of and identification of the object, it behaviour and the feelings elicited by the object in visitors as well as their statements of knowledge can be identified effectively changing qualitative conversations to quantifiable data (Tunnicliffe, 1995). Secondly, Bloom (1992) described what he termed contexts of meaning. In conversations the talker makes a description of expression based on personal experience, which gives, rise to episodic knowledge statements or expressions of emotion, the use of metaphors and similes or displaying interpretive frameworks such as “ That worm’s a boy because it’s fatter.”. Lastly, Cosgrove and Sacheverin (1996) identified the processes of science occurring in the conversations of children when engaged in science work. They subdivided the types of conversations into descriptive, factual and explanative conversations to peers or teacher about an investigation. The type of conversations moved through asking why and how questions, often associated with episodic memories, to conversations which raised and tested hypothesises to lastly philosophical conversations. When visitors look at exhibits, especially dioramas, these varied types of conversations are present.

Dioramas have been, hitherto, a rather neglected area of museum exhibits but a renaissance is beginning for them. A number of museums e.g. Fulwood, Nottingham (personal communication), removed, over the past decade, both their taxidermically preserved animal exhibits and the settings in which many where displayed. This is a retrograde step. Visitors come to the diorama on their visits with some knowledge relevant to the content in most cases. In their view their knowledge is pertinent to the exhibit and they often use this and only this on their interpretation of what they see. As for instance does the child in conversation one of the transcripts reported here. What the visitor holds in their mind is their mental model. What they say, or draw, about the exhibit is their expressed model (Buckley, Boulter & Gilbert, 1997), which calls on information held within their mental model. Hence, in the study reported in this paper, these expressed models are manifest as Names e.g. ‘The little wolf’. As descriptions of function decided upon from matching what they see with what they know,’ That’s a daddy bear’ or of behaviour ‘...is just sniffing the snow’, ‘There’s something swimming in the water’. Furthermore, mental models are employed in the visitor’s interpretation of the scenario, ‘It’s telling the story of the seasons’, as well as considered thoughts, 'I didn’t think wolves went in swampy land but in trees’. Families ask questions of each other as they make meaning out of dioramas (Ash, 2004) and such questioning can either enable movements towards scientific understanding or hinder it.


Methodology

In this study visitors were worked with and interviewed after they had viewed the diorama, either alone as a singleton or in a group. When it was possible to request this, visitors spontaneous conversation and comments were recorded as they went along the diorama. The work was conducted at the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh on a Wednesday in April, which was within the school holidays. It was a very sunny day. Relatively few visitors went to the lower floor of the museum and passed through the dioramas, which were a relatively new exhibit in the new part of the museum. This exhibit is a recognition of the superiority of dioramas over singleton exhibits and heralds a fresh enlightened approach in the United Kingdom to creating minds-on, interactive exhibits.

The structure and context of the dioramas is always important to the visitor. The new Scottish exhibit consists of three dioramas next to each together, which tell the story of the development of the flora and fauna of Scotland from the Ice Age onwards. Although the exhibit has been planned for visitors to start at one end they do enter from either end. At both ends there were interpretative panels on the wall. Some visitors entered the exhibit ‘the wrong way’. Few read the information panels giving the setting for the dioramas. Three interactive stand-free flat computer screens were placed in front of the diorama. Visitors interacted with the touch screens in front of each of the three ‘windows’ of the diorama. Each touch screen is identical. There are three scenes in the diroama, effectively a pine forest, a deciduous forest and an artic ice age scene. The screen has a picture of the diorama. Visitors could press on the image of an object portrayed in this picture and find out further information about the object such as its common and scientific name, its habitat. The visitors that used the interpretative device sometimes used it to locate what was in the exhibit then moved nearer and look. The dioramas were relatively dark but a light came on at intervals, which revealed more organisms then could be seen by many visitors in the low light. These interpretative devices acted as both advanced organisers and as information providers as well as ‘locators, pointers to exhibit content.

The conversations of the visitors were both recorded and written down. Permission to do this was obtained before the action. Some demographic data of the visitor was obtained, age and from where they had come. They were asked to give a name, any name, just for purpose of reference. The conversations or commentaries were short. Some conversations were factual about the context in which the exhibits were viewed. A number of visitors commented upon this: For example,

Couldn’t see the bear to start with. Would be nice if you could press the button and light the animals up you wanted to see”

Comments about the content were short. Three examples are included.

In the first example a ten-year-old boy uses his previous knowledge to describe the content of the exhibit as if listing in a catalogue of contents compiling an itinerary but not interpreting at any further level nor asking questions.

Craig boy aged 10 More was seen by him when the lights came on. He stared at Pine forest and walked up and down in front of all three scenes

It’s got wolves, badger and underground bits, snails and worms, mice, birds and there’s a pond. Snails in it and de



Er and rabbits It’s got a small wolf and a lynx and there’s an otter not it’s a beaver. And there’s a bird in the snow and there’s an owl and a small eagle and a big huge deer and there’s a wart hog and there’s eels and that’s a bird THE LIGHTS CAME ON and there’s a big bear and a squirrel and mushrooms and there’s a badger …. And trees and moles. And there is what you call them- lily pads. I’ve said the worms and there’s another mouse and there’s a woodpecker and slugs- Oh I never saw that and pine cones There’s a moose and a pike.”
The second example is factual in terms of identifying the content but shows some description of the action which the designers have endeavored to portray through the modeling of the animals, sleeping, swimming but the comments re still descriptive. The reference to the audio component of the exhibit making it multisensory is interesting.
Boy aged 9 ‘Malcolm’

His parents were using the diorama screens. He looked at the dioramas alone.

The wolves are trying to get the wild pig thing. The moles are sleeping the birds are eating the worms on the mud…….



There’s an owl sleeping on the tree……( at first scene)

Reindeers looking around. The little wolf (artic fox) is just sniffing the snow, it is white ( At end scene)

 

There’s something swimming in the water (looked back at middle scene)



Birds flying what sort…eagles….

I can hear Wolves……

There’s a squirrel and a rabbit.

The last example is of a teenager who spontaneously begins to ask questions which interpret the exhibit further and employs previous knowledge as well as an affective component which again must be based on previous knowledge and experience. For what reasons does this boy like wolves because they are chasing another animal?

Teenage boy Murdoch

Is that a real snail? It looks like a real one. Foxes.



I like the wolves because they are chasing an animal”

 

Not all visitor conversations were recorded. On some occasions several ‘visitor units’ were present simultaneously. And only one could be recorded. Other visitors were not English speakers. In some instances visitors declined to be involved and some visitors in groups had clear body language that they would not welcome a request. Some visitors commented to me about lighting as they left.




Results

Thirty-four conversations about the dioramas were collected. These visitors attended between 11 am and 4 p.m. Eight children under 7( I boy), 17 children between 7 and 11 years ( 8 boys and 9 girls) 4 teenagers( 1 boy) and 5 female adults were respondents. The total number of conversations analysed was 34. The transcripts were typed and then read and re read until categories of comment emerged. These were as follows.


1. Identifying the objects by name e.g. wolf, lily pad.

2. Describing:

a. Physical aspects of the exhibit object e.g. colour of animal, size.

b. Behaviour portrayed e.g. running,” “There’s something swimming in the water”

c. The overall scene e.g. “this is winter’


3. Interpreting.

a. Visitors telling their own story, e.g. ‘The wolves are trying to get the wild pig thing”, “An owl sleeping on the tree”, “Look whose hiding, the brown bear.”

b. Telling the museum’s story. Echoing the explanations of the exhibit rationale (this is different from identifying the animals and plants etc.)

“ It’s the end of the ice age- the tundra; going to evolve into forests, pine forest in the highlands and oak. Some animals will disappear and be replaced by others.”

Sixteen visitors referred to the interpretation, all the adults, 2 infants and 10 junior age children

Table 1 Summary of content of conversations according to the three categories itemized above.

Age group

Identify

Describe

a. Physical



Describe

b. Behaviour



Describe c. scene

Interpret a.

own story



Interpret b. museum story

Infants

n = 8


8

3

3

3

1

0

Juniors n = 17

16

4

7

6

3

2

Teens n = 4

4

0

0

0

0

0

Adults

5

5

1

2

3

3

All groups identify objects within the dioramas. The junior age group predominantly describe behaviours more and the scenes more than do other groups. The museum story is heard but little, once from a junior boy and junior girls and from 3 adults. It is the junior aged group, the females and the adults, also all females, who refer in their conversations to the signage. Such results suggested different levels of interaction (Table 3)

Table 2 Break down of conversational content in Table 1 by gender

Age group

Identify

Describe

a. Physical



Describe b. Behaviour

Describe c. scene

Interpret

  1. own

story

Interpret b. museum story

Refer to signage

Infants

Male n = 1



1

1

1

0

0

0

0

Infants

female


n = 7

7

2

2

3

1

0

2

Juniors male n = 8

9

3

5

3

1

1

2

Juniors female n = 9

7

1


2

3

1

1

7

Teens male n = 1

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

Teens fem ale n= 3

3

3

0

0

0

0

0

Adults male n = 0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Adults

Fem ale n = 5



5

1

1

2

3

3

5

On an analysis of the content through reading the transcripts there emerges a number of levels of interpretation and usage of the dioramas. The levels are: 1. Locate; 2. Identify by name the located object; 3. Describe form function and behaviour; 4. Interpret. This analysis is summarised below. There is tendency for the youngest children to be at the first level and for interaction to increase with age.

Thus visitors first of all locate items within a diorama. They may do this from their own observations or be assisted in this activity through using signage provided. Once an item is located it may be identified. The identification may come from the observer or from a companion.

E.g. An 11year old girl with her Mother:


Girl: A pig


Mum: That’s a wild boar remember what we talked about last time
Or identification may come from the signage provided.

E.g. Amy (aged 7)

“A baby wolf, actually I think it was a fox, and I liked the hare (she checked its name on the interactive)”.

Once an object has been found and identified visitors frequently proceed to describe its attributes. Such an observational pattern has been observed in zoos and natural history museum at exhibits, which are presented without the real context for those exhibits (Tunnicliffe, 1995 An example is a (9 yr boy describing the snow. And a salient feature of the wolf which is little. He also interprets the action portrayed by the posed animal. “The little wolf is just sniffing the snow. It is white”

Lastly visitors may interpret that which they see in abstract terms relating the exhibit to concepts, such as interpreting the wolf’s pose as ‘sniffing’ and “The wolves are trying to get the wild pig”. Visitors may also then raise questions and philosophise. A 20yr. French woman reflected “It must be like the Continental climate because here are animals you find in England, and French and German forests’

Other Viewing styles

Viewing incidentally occurs too. Not all the visitors were interested in the dioramas and noticed items in passing! This young couple was lost and more anxious to find the exit when I asked them about the dioramas.


Male “ Animals in their habitats”

Female “Animals. There are a lot in the other hall”


Male “Actually we are looking for the main bit to go out”
Other visitors valued the museum as a place of recreation, which in the following example has lead to some questions raising and philosophizing.

A mother with her 5-year-old son.


It’s nice to have somewhere free to take them. We’re planning 4 hours, 4 in the museum. I’ve never been in this new bit before this is very nice. I’ve not seen it before”
Another mother and son (aged 5) regularly visited this diorama. Their familiarity has enabled them to start asking questions., “Will it hit its head?”

We sit here and talk about it, like the stone in the mole run and will it hit its head? We usually eat our sandwiches opposite the wolves. Could do with more light”



Table 3 Visitors responses to dioramas


LEVEL OF RESPONSE

Sub category of response

Conversational approach

Example of activity

First

LOCATE


1. Spontaneously

a. Factual

Pick out things in dioramas e.g. wolf, fungus, snow



2. Assisted – using signage




See things on interactive, then loc

ate them in diorama



Second IDENTIFY

1. Spontaneously

a from own knowledge

b from companion





From own

knowledge or

that of companion





2 Assisted by museum




From signage or

guide


Third

DESCRIBE

1. Objects
from own experience/knowledge/observations

a Physical aspects

b Behaviours


b. Context of meaning


  1. Some context of science questions why? How?

  2. Through to philosophical nature- seldom heard

From own

experience and knowledge- e.g.

wolves chasing

wild pig, beaver

swimming, ‘fox’

is white





2 Scene from own experience/knowledge/observations


b. Context of meaning
c. Some context of science questions why? How? Through

to philosophical nature- seldom heard

It’s winter because there is snow’



As above but from museum information/assistance

a. objects

b. scene


b. Context of meaning


  1. Some context of science questions why? How?

  2. Through

  3. to philosophical nature

‘Will it (mole) hit

its head (on the stone)?’



Fourth INTERPRET

  1. The visitor’s story

  2. using own knowledge

2. Visitors story using museum information/message

b. Context of meaning
c. Some context of science questions why? How? Through

to philosophical nature

e.g. ‘It’s telling the story of the seasons”

‘It’s about the changes in the landscape’

‘It must be like the Continental climate because…’





2. The museum’s story

b. Context of meaning

The change in flora and fauna since the

ice age


Discussion

Many museums have removed their dioramas. The diorama discussed here is unusual because it is new. Removing dioramas is a retrograde step. Working with children in museums where dioramas are in situ I have noticed that they have a greater holding power than just animals and on many occasions the interactive exhibits provided. Furthermore, the children spontaneously look at the animals and their environment portrayed and identify. The animals and tell a story on occasions about what the diorama is representing. There is tremendous scope, for museum educators and teachers who bring school groups, to link observing at dioramas with literacy skills of story telling and story making. Furthermore, Dioramas can serve as ‘momentary’ escapes from complicated, everyday life. Observing them for a brief time can transport a person to another place, generally more peaceful and quiet and connected to natural rhythms, and activate their imagination. Dioramas are particularly important to those who don’t leave the urban environment in helping them construct understanding about different types of habitat and interactions between living things (personal communication E, Carmen 2005). The History of Wildlife dioramas certainly achieve the objectives with which it was constructed.

Dioramas are effective minds-on exhibits. It is evident from working at the diorama that it is a tremendous science education resource and many activities could be developed for use with it, which would enhance the learning experience of pupils and consolidate their learning for the national curriculum. They can be used to develop the skill of observation with meaning crucial for science and historical education. As a tool in biological education dioramas cannot be surpassed. The organism can be viewed, unlike the situation in zoos in particular where animal may be hiding or off display. Moreover, the organisms are shown in an accurate simulation of their natural surroundings enabling information and concepts about interrelationships between both organism and their habitat to be made. Such facilities in these times of growing interest in conservation and biodiversity, of which skill in taxonomy is the basis, such natural history dioramas should be cherished and their occurrence expanded.

References

Ash, D,(2004) How families use questions at dioramas: ideas for exhibit design. Curator 47 (1). 84-100.

Bjork, L. (2000) Wildlife Dioramas and Natural History Museums: In Theory and Practice. Unpublished Masters thesis. School of Liberal Arts John F Kennedy University, Orinda, CA,, USA.

Bloom, J.W.(1992) The development of scientific knowledge in elementary school children: a context of meaning perspective. Science Education, 76, pp. 399-413.

Bruner, J. S., Goodnow, J. J. and Austin, G. A. (1956) A Study of thinking. New York, John Wiley, Science Editions, Inc.

Buckley, B., Boulter, C., & Gilbert, J. ( 1997) Towards a typology of models for science education. In J. Gilbert( Ed.) Exploring models and modelling in science and technology education .pp.90 –105. Reading, England. University of Reading.

Cosgrove, M. & Schaverien, L. (1996) Children’s conversations and learning science and technology, International Journal of Science Education, 18 pp. 105-116.

Kamen, E. (2005) Personal Communication

Kitchener. A. (2005) Personal Communication

Scott, M. 2005. Writing the History of Humanity: The Role of Museums in

Defining Origins and Ancestors in a Transnational World. Curator.

Volume 48 Number 1 pp74-89

Tunnicliffe, S.D. ( 1995) Talking about animals: Studies of young children in zoos, a museum and a farm. Unpublished PhD thesis. King’s College, London.



Tunnicliffe, S.D. & Reiss M.J. (1999). Talking about brine shrimps: three ways of analysing pupil conversations. Research in Science and technological Education. 17 (2), 203-217.

Wonders , K., (1989) Exhibiting Fauna. From Spectacle to Habitat Group, Curator, 32,(2),1321-154
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