"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": A collection of beloved collections

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

Full list of posts updated Monday, February 6. This is the final update.

Last week, I asked BoingBoing readers to send me images and stories about your favorite museum exhibits—beloved displays and collections squirreled away in museums that might not have a big profile outside your state or region. The challenge was triggered by an awesome photo of a mummified Ice Age bison on display in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But this series also has roots in my own love of the museum exhibits that defined my childhood. Over the coming week, I'll be posting more "My Favorite Museum Exhibit" entries. I'll update the list here, and this post will be the one-stop place to check if you want to read them all. But I also wanted to use this space to share one of my favorite museum exhibits—the Panorama of North American Plants and Animals at the University of Kansas' Dyche Museum of Natural History.

Taxidermy is not normally my thing. I love dinosaur bones, but dioramas always make me feel like I'd rather just be at a zoo, or watching a nature special on TV. This is especially true of the "local flora and fauna" sort of museum dioramas. I have seen squirrels, thanks. But the Panorama is something else, a work that transcends its genre to become true art and a temple to Maker creativity.

The Panorama is the work of Lewis Lindsay Dyche, a 19-century KU professor. Dyche originally constructed the exhibit for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It featured 121 animals and took two years to complete. Scientific American called the Panorama one of the most remarkable exhibits at the Fair. By all accounts, Dyche was a very good taxidermist. But his taxidermy work is only part of what makes the Panorama so impressive.

Instead of presenting a single scene, the Panorama flows, capturing every North American biome from the Arctic to the jungle. It wraps around the room, almost a full 360 degrees. As you follow the circle, polar bears and seals fade seamlessly into bunnies on the tundra, then aspen forests full of bobcats, and on into craggy cliffs dotted with mountain goats. As a child, it was my first brush with the realization that where I lived was only one part of something bigger—if I walked far enough north, I'd find icy wastes, far enough south and there'd be vine-covered trees filled with monkeys. What the Panorama offered was perspective. Before you're old enough to really comprehend "spaceship Earth" you can comprehend this.

The video at the top of this post only shows about 2/3 of the Panorama. You're missing the desert and jungle areas. Below, you can see a close up that shows off the prairie and Rocky Mountain areas in a little more detail.

According to Jennifer Humphrey, the KU Natural History Museum's communications director, the Panorama is one of only three dioramas like it in the whole world. It's not the only thing I love at that Museum. But it's definitely a big part of what makes the Museum unique.

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Other entries in the "My Favorite Museum Exhibit" series:

Published 6:00 am Mon, Jan 30, 2012

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About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

23 Responses to “"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": A collection of beloved collections”

  1. Maggie have you seen the dioramas at the Denver Museum of Natural History? Countless hours of my childhood spent in wonder at that place.  Really left a strong imprint on me. Awesome idea for a blog post btw.

  2. jamsie says:

    I am really loving this museum series.  Thanks!

  3. gregzilm1 says:

    I used to love this museum, it was always the highlight of any trip to Lawrence. For me my favorite part was the basement full of dinosaur fossils. I even did a week long archeology summer camp one year. Sadly, some how I made it through 5 years as a KU student without visiting the Natural History Museum once.

    • My second favorite thing at the Dyche Museum: The little side room in the basement with the fluorescing rocks. You wouldn’t even know it was there if you didn’t know the museum. Go in, close the curtain behind you, switch off the lights, and voila: You’re own private Pink Floyd laser light show. 

      • Mister44 says:

        I LOVE fluorecent rocks! I have a hand held black light and a UV flashlight that I have used to find some specimens in decorative rock people have around their bushes, etc. Most of it glows orange and probably from calcite deposits. Nothing as cool as the ‘real’ stuff – but it’s free!

    • stand says:

      The museum is also famous for being the home of Comanche the horse from Custer’s army that survived the Battle at Big Horn. I remember back when I went to school there that he got water damaged but I believe he is still there.

  4. gabsan says:

    biological dioramas must have been the rage in 1893, http://www.biologiskamuseet.com/
    crappy wideo; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W29q0i7NfL8

  5. cjporkchop says:

    When I was at KU, I remember a walrus in that diorama had a huge crack going through it vertically. It always made me sad.

  6. StephenJJohnson says:

    Absolutely the best thing about the KU Panorama: the prairie dog that peaks out of its hole and ducks back down once a minute or so.

  7. cousin229 says:

    If you visit the Province of Alberta in Western Canada, remember to go to  The Royal Tyrrell Museum, it is located in Drumheller in the middle of the area where they are extracting dinosaurs bones from the soil! For me it was a dream come true! 

    http://www.traveldrumheller.com/royal-tyrrell-museum.html

  8. journey46 says:

    thanks, maggie, well done. you rock.
    for sure, one day, when the internet has been killed, someone will build an internet museum and you will be in it.
    might be a good time to get in good with a wax sculptor.
    you always inform and delight.
    keep on rocking !

  9. David says:

    The Panorama is fantastic, and as a diorama junkie it’s now added to my list of places I must experience first-hand. Thank you! But “one of only three dioramas like it in the whole world?” Nearly every Cabela’s store has extensive multi-habitat dioramas that seem almost as comprehensive (albeit limited to game animals) and as impressive as the Panorama, not to mention the even more impressive (to me) such displays at the giant Scheel’s store in Reno NV, which includes massive fresh- and saltwater aquaria to boot. They’re not museums, of course, but entrance is always free!

  10. lux_aurumque says:

    Oh man, when I was a kid, I used to LOVE going to the Streets of Old Milwaukee/European Village in the Milwaukee Public Museum.

    It was so very detailed: I loved peeking in all the windows, pumping the water, shopping for old candy in the general store…

    European Village:
    http://www.mpm.edu/exhibitions/permanent/eurovillage/

    Streets of Old Milwaukee:
    http://www.mpm.edu/exhibitions/permanent/oldmil/

  11. Gallileo’s mummified middle finger from the Museo Gallileo (formerly the Museum of the History of Science) in Florence. http://catalogue.museogalileo.it/object/MiddleFingerGalileosRightHand.html

  12. That panorama is my favorite museum piece as well. To get a view from above the scene you could go upstairs to a little balcony and look out but you had to walk through these hallways that were full of different kinds of snakes in tiny enclosures and they’d always be slithering up the glass and kind of freaking me out. That museum also had that cutaway tree with an opening to the outside so you could see bees making a hive in it. And another floor up, if my memory serves, there’s Commanche, a taxidermy horse that was one of the few survivors of Little Bighorn. 

  13. PressPlug says:

    I realize this isn’t quite a collection of artifacts per se, but it is a remarkable collection of 336 marble columns plundered or taken from the ruins of older cities.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/26/Cisterna_Basilica_Junto_a_Santa_Sofia_Estambul_.JPG/800px-Cisterna_Basilica_Junto_a_Santa_Sofia_Estambul_.JPG

    They were repurposed in the construction of the Palace Cistern in Istanbul. According to Wikipedia, “is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Turkey”

    Until the late 20th century they were filled with silt and used as makeshift hideouts. Once people realized what the structure was, the cistern was excavated, revealing a cavernous room. To visit it now, it has a ten foot pool of water with fish in it, and is well lit. When I visited I thought it was lovely and fascinating.

    Until I saw THIS. And now I cannot forget. In the far corner, hidden and upside down are two giant medusa heads, poking out of the water.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/30/Basilica_Cistern_Constantinople_2007_011.jpg/226px-Basilica_Cistern_Constantinople_2007_011.jpg

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/3/30/20070811222546%21Basilica_Cistern_Constantinople_2007_011.jpg

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