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Chapter 11: Final Years at the American Museum



Chapter 11:
Final Years at the American Museum

James Perry Wilson Painting Jeffrey Pine
James Perry Wilson in the Jeffrey Pine diorama,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

While Henry Fairfield Osborn initiated most of the halls of dioramas, putting a strong stamp on the look of the AMNH from the 1920's until the 1940's, Albert E. Parr was equally as important as the driver of exhibits after 1942.  Parr's influence continues into the present.  He was the first museum administrator to bring a wide-ranging challenge to how exhibits might best reflect the goals of the museum..  All previous AMNH directors deferred to untested assumptions about the displays and left design considerations to the exhibits department directors.  As part of his larger ideas for reconfiguring the natural history museum, Parr felt that it was the responsibility of the scientific community to the world and to western democracy to publicly display current scientific thinking as it related to the environment and especially to address the extent of man's global footprint.   He was a visionary on this count, aware that human exploitation of the environment would increasingly develop into social and political discourse.  He felt that the natural history museums had to be recalibrated so that a higher percentage of displays reflected the growing problems of civilization and human impact on the environment.  He thought that there was too much emphasis on "the rare and peculiar, on extinct species which can no longer affect human life one way or another, and upon the many interesting subjects deriving their significance from the theory of evolution, such as comparative anatomy and biogeography"i.  While he understood the importance of these subjects, he insisted he wasn't on a crusade. He simply felt that they alone, didn't constitute an adequate program for the museum.  He suggested simply that, the role of the natural history museum in a troubled world should expand to include human-caused issues.

Albert Parr Portrait
Albert Parr,
Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History

We would bring all the natural sciences to bear upon the telling of our story.  The geology of our rocks, the physics of our soils, the botany of nature and cultivated vegetation, the genetics of corn, the biology of our wild life and the anthropology of our nation.  As all these sciences do their share in explaining the epic of man and nature on our continent, they will also themselves be explained thereby.  And, with the story brought up to date to the problems of dust bowls and soil erosion, forestry, wildlife and natural resources, our public would get a new appreciation of the significance of the natural sciences by seeing them applied to the interpretation of an environment with which they are deeply concernedii.

Parr rightly determined that many of the assumptions about displays had not been challenged or tested. He directed most of his criticism toward how museum exhibits were envisioned, particularly to the scope of exhibits.  He insisted that anthropological culture and the impact of humans were evident in any museum exhibit on natural history and therefore he thought that the alteration of the environment by humans should be exhibited alongside any 20th century exhibit.  As director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History from 1938 to 1942, Parr started this work with the Connecticut Hall of dioramas.  In the first two dioramas created, there is much human evidence, a lighthouse seen at the end of a sand spit, the town of Stratford, CT in the distance, a Native American shell midden, partially exposed in the foreground, and a colonial farmhouse and barn are painted into the background.  Connecticut Native American cultural displays are opposite the dioramas.

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History Connecticut Hall of Dioramas
Connecticut Hall of Dioramas,
Peabody Museum of Natural History, photo by M. Anderson

Parr has been unjustly criticized as an unrelenting opponent of natural history dioramas, but in fact, he thought they had great potential to reveal ecological and scientific evidence to the viewer.  He was critical of the dioramas produced at the AMNH that portrayed undisturbed nature.  It's as if his museum philosophy developed in reaction to this type of display.  Of the AMNH's dioramas, Parr was critical of two things: the low capacity of dioramas to educate the viewer on the "hidden" and complex information in the displays and, the information, itself, lacked one prominent participant: humans.  Even though he understood that ecological and scientific stories were embedded in these exhibits, he didn't like that the information was not clearly articulated for the viewers.   Scientific stories were multifaceted and he felt the dioramas were, of necessity, too dependent on a museum educator, labels, or Guide-a-phonesiii to deliver the information to the viewer. Unless you were a student of the biological sciences, the dioramas needed someone to explain the complexities of the ecological story.  And present-day study of ecology included human impact on environments, which was not seen in the AMNH dioramas. These same criticisms about the dioramas are still today debated at the AMNH and other museums across the country.

The proponents of diorama education thought that dioramas, at their best, evoke inquiry.  Questions come to the surface for visitors such as: How does the color change in the fall leaves?  I have seen a green praying mantis, why is this one brown?  Why are there so many monarch butterflies?  What happens to the animals in the scene when winter comes?  These "wondering" questions are all very engaging to young students. The answers don't reveal themselves at first, but quietly draw the viewer to inquire what is going on.   Didactic labels have always been discussed as a way to address questions, but there isn't enough space on the wall for labels to explain everything.  Dioramas were made to contemplate, to involve viewers on a deeper, emotional level.  The beauty of the scene and the quality of the artistic illusion can transfix a viewer similar to how a painting or sculpture can affect a person.  When this happens, breathing slows and the viewer is opened on an emotional level.  The environmental and ecological science, when considered after such engagement will be learned and stored in memory on a far deeper level.iv  The creators of early diorama understood that long labels with profuse didactic information detracted from this quiet approach to learning.  Reading about ecology can happen later from a book after the viewer is hooked.  But Parr disagreed; he thought that learning from a diorama wasn't efficient enough.  Parr's ideas won over many museum administrators.  Further persuasion came from the time and increasing expense of producing dioramas.

The Warburg Memorial Hall of Ecology (opened in 1951), was Parr's ideal for natural history exhibits.  Parr put the focus on Duchess County, a small section of New York State and looked at it from a broad perspective of scientific disciplines.  At the beginning of the exhibit, there is one full-size diorama that is set on the shore of the lake at the base of Stissing Mountain.  In what appears to be an ironic touch from Parr, the habitat diorama is pastoral and shows only somewhat obscure evidence of human impact, a distant clearing, second growth trees on the bank of the lake, a footpath, all of unclear origin.  Could this evidence of human impact be from Native Americans or of colonists or even modern, 1950's fishermen?  The diorama serves as a backdrop for the ecological ideas presented in the hall.  It is likely Parr was suggesting that once a visitor walked through the hall, there would be no need for an educator to illuminate what ecological stories were embedded in the diorama.

Stissing Mountain
An October Afternoon Near Stissing Mountain diorama,
AMNH, photo by M. Anderson
The Warburg Hall was Parr's answer to the problems of the American Museum's halls of dioramas.  The hall starts with paleontology and geologic history.  The alteration of the landscape by glaciers is schematically displayed.  The water cycle, soil composition, and best practices on how to farm on the land are presented.   Ecological inter-relationships of insects, animals, plants, crops, and man are emphasized in the exhibits.  Parr intended to create a hall that told a more complete story about the land, a land occupied by humans.  In that sense, he succeeded. Arguably, if the content and text were upgraded and the cases cleaned, the exhibit could stand up well in today's exhibit sensibilities.  Certainly, the content is ever more important, especially because it presents local landscapes and New York state environmental concerns.  For better or worse, the Warburg Hall of Ecology proved to be a trend-setter for museum exhibits across the country and subsequently, construction of new diorama halls became much less commonplace.   Parr's influence on museum exhibits was far-reaching.  No one had ever written more thoroughly and creatively about the issues and aesthetics of exhibit making.  

Ever critical of diorama's educational capabilities, Parr acknowledged the hold they have over the public.  He conceded that dioramas were inspiring, beautiful, and disclosed fascinating interrelationships of undisturbed nature.  He even believed that the "implicit" scientific knowledge of the diorama was superior to the lecture hall education of a didactic exhibit.  He recounted spending many happy, unguided hours as a child poring over exhibits in his local Norwegian museum.  By such unguided inquiry, he discovered many of the hidden secrets embedded in the displays.  

The educational method of the habitat group is indirect. It is one of the outstanding virtues of this form of presentation that it does not pre-digest the evidence.  It makes a total reconstruction of a scene or event in nature in which the effects of many natural laws and scientific principles are implicit, and from which it is possible for a penetrating mind to draw many conclusions and gain many new insights. By the same token the habitat group also offers abundant opportunities for those not versed in scientific deduction to overlook or misunderstand the messages implicit in the exhibits.  The label or the lecture has therefore always been an essential adjunct of the habitat group, relied upon in an exceptional degree to bring out all the lessons implicit in the exhibit.v

In comparison with the halls of dioramas though, Parr was right, the Warburg Hall cannot compete.  The dioramas have a innate appeal with the public.  Regardless of Parr's proclamation of victory in launching a comprehensively new kind of natural history exhibit; the Warburg Hall failed because it is an exhibit of a textbook.  Parr understood that exhibits are duller with more text, but he believed that the museum had a responsibility to teach science in all its complexities.  The content of the displays he believed, no matter how esoteric or boring, could be over-ridden by creative design.  He hoped that more didactic displays could be designed so they were engaging.   If there was a failure, the subject merely needed more creative ideas to carry it.  His insistence that design could transform boring subject matter was the point that Parr's ideas falter.  Parr recognized that the high quality of the museum artist and creative design were qualities that most engaged the public.  Parr's wife was an artist and she may have pointed out this idea.  But he was reluctant to continue with high-level illusion of reality as an exhibit paradigm.  Parr suggested a parallel between exhibit design and the history of modern art.  He felt that natural history exhibits were stuck in the past style of absolute naturalism and realism and had not yet explored more impressionistic and abstract designs as alternatives.  He suggested exhibits that the visitor had to fill in with his imagination.  The exhibits would have the value of variety, greater flexibility, and lower cost.  Not only must a large museum avoid repetition of animals, but it also must avoid repetition of the larger impressions, which the vistas of each hall present to the public.  Parr wrote that it's not important for every director, or the board, or the visitor to like every display.  What is important is that the whole should make a stimulating and memorable impact.  His next exhibit, North American Forests has a blend of informative habitat groups with explanatory exhibits, The Warburg Hall was mostly explanatory.

I had the privilege to walk through the Warburg Hall with Bill Schiller, a retired educator from the AMNH, who feels that the Warburg Hall is as important as anything displayed in the museum.  For Schiller, the visual impact of the presentation is secondary to the content in the hall.  He acknowledges that people spend very little time in the Warburg hall, and that for most; it is a hallway to get from one place to another in the museum. I find it hard to engage in the exhibits, but with an educator, like Schiller, the Warburg Hall comes alive.  This is ironic since Parr wanted this exhibit to be different from the halls of dioramas with no need for an educator.  But even in this didactic exhibit, the scientist cannot get enough information into the labels to tell even the most basic story.  Of the content that is displayed, Schiller is critical that it doesn't reveal the full ecological inter-relationships of organisms and sidesteps some of the issues of man's destructive impact on the environment. In an effort to compensate, Schiller produced customized handouts with more comprehensive ecological perspectives and supplemental readings about the escalating environmental crisis.

It is debatable whether Parr made a mistake with the Warburg Hall or not.  In terms of content, I think Bill Schiller is correct that there might not be a more relevant exhibit at the AMNH.  If the content were updated, the exhibit would still be text-dependent at the expense of visually interesting displays.  In this sense, the Warburg never passed the test of time.  It was always an illustrated lecture that most of us would rather not have to endure.  In Parr's defense, he wrote that the life of a permanent exhibit may be left on display for ten years without causing serious embarrassment.  After that, it begins to depreciate in value for the museum.  At the high end, thirty years is the maximum for any exhibit, according to Parr.  After more than sixty years, many of the special effects in the Warburg Hall are broken or taken off display.  Some of the models are fading, leaves are curling with age, and the displays are dated.  Yet, if you look closely, some of the work is of exceptionally high quality.

Dead Insects in Exhibit Case
Dust and dead insects in Warburg Hall exhibit case,
photo by M. Anderson

Fredoin Jalayer, Tomas Newberry, Dr. George Childs, Ray deLucia, and George Petersen were some of the talented foreground artists who took great pride in the accuracy of their work on the fabricated plants, vegetables and miniature work.   The high level of artistry in the AMNH in the late 1940's was astonishing.  Though the Warburg Hall does not entice with attractive, modern displays, I would suggest that the visitor explore the hall and look for the fabricated plants, leaves and mini-dioramas to find these high quality diamonds in the rough.  Schiller pointed out that the wax Lady Slipper was sculpted with such extraordinary detail that he can teach students how bees collect pollen by entering in one section of the flower and leaving through another section full of pollen. Though the background paintings are average, at best, one can see the beginnings of Parr's creative ideas using forced perspective, mirrorscopes, and pepper's ghost boxes.  Unfortunately, compared to other halls, it looks like the priority was to save money.  Compared to the halls of dioramas, which have weathered the test of time much better, the sixty-plus year old Warburg Hall is an embarrassment to the museum.  It has the look of a hall past due for dismantling.

Orchids
Warburg Hall Lady Slippers,
photo by M. Anderson

Parr strode into the AMNH in 1942 with the charge to reorganize the museum from top to bottom.  A consultant had recently submitted a critical overview of the Museum.  This had been the basis for dismissing the previous director, Roy Chapman Andrews and hiring Parr.  Parr was the right man to reorganize a big institution because he was a big thinker, he was committed to efficiency, and he had the swagger to take on such a large organization.   On the other hand, he was not the best manager of people.  He could be impulsive and he had a knack for making his employees feel insecure about their future. 

An article about Parr in the New York Times April 5, 1959, gives the reader the sense of his personality:

"Dr. Parr is unlikely to let any of his ideas be watered down in committee wrangles.  ‘Creative effort', he says, ‘should not be judged in advance by committees.  How can you sit down 12 people, for instance, and make them see the vision of a man who had an idea?  I say, let the man with a vision try it out.  If he fails, he fails.  Doing a thing first is very often the only way to get it done.  Naturally, a creative person will make mistakes.  I think the more creative a person, the more mistakes he will make.  Only fools are never foolish.  As for committees-they are never creative, just critical.'

It's interesting that Parr conceived of his directorship as a creative position.  At best, Parr was intelligent and creative and he looked for these qualities in his subordinates. At worst, he was an authoritarian leader who steamrolled over any obstacles or critics in his path. Clearly, this is not a quote from a team player.  The union was started at the AMNH during his tenure because the staff feared for their jobs.  After Francis Lee Jaques wrote Clarence Hay incensed about the repainting of the Timberline diorama, Parr wrote Hay a note with stunning callousness toward Jaques.  He wrote:

I am extremely sorry that you should be bothered about the improvements we made in the Timberline group.  From Mr. Jaques letter, I gather that no further correspondence is necessary, so I hope that we can all forget about itvi.

Jaques didn't mince any words when it came to Parr:

When Albert Parr became director, [Wayne] Faunce was dumped.  Parr had a fascist mind and grandiose plans.  Almost none were practical and almost none ever installed.  The early part of the Parr years I sometimes did contract work for the Museum.  It was an unpleasant period though I was not as concerned as the employees.  It was a weird time, since heads were falling right and left (James L. Clark, James Chapin, Clyde Fisher, Roy Chapman Andrews) and there was no ready explanation.  Some of the heads certainly deserved to roll-I think, but some didn't.  No one felt safe.  At one time a basement door had been unlocked for years and nobody reported it.  Anyone could have come in anytime.  Then passes were required to take anything out.  But a briefcase pass could be had, and anything could be, and was, taken out.  Or cars parked down there-many were, could be loaded and taken out without search.  It was weird. Fascist.  Fingerprints of everyone were taken, including mine.  [Even]President White of the Museum had his taken.vii

One of the heads that rolled was James L. Clark's.  Under a directive from the Board that Parr orchestrated, the Department of Preparation was reorganized, discontinuing Clark's position as Director of Preparation and Installation... as of February 1, 1949.  He was given a small office space, but not allowed to continue in any capacity except with an emeritus title.viii  Museum lore has it that Parr was in the Exhibits Department saw a monumental historical painting of Columbus landing on the shores of the New World.  He thought it was a terrible painting and had it sent to the incinerator.  It turned out it was an original Albert Bierstadt painting! Bierstadt created this painting in 1892 in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus's historic voyage. The artist had intended this work to be exhibited at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.  Many of Bierstadt's Native American anthropological references were donated to the AMNH along with the painting after his death.  AMNH archives listed the painting as  "destroyed by fire".

Bierstadt Painting of the Landing of Columbus in 1892
Albert Bierstadt, Columbus Discovering the New World, 1892, copyright in the public domain

Parr was an organizing force at the AMNH.  He liked order and he went about re-ordering the way things were done at the museum.  The level to which he took this ordering process is astounding.  It appears from the Plan and Scope minutes from June 17, 1942, that Parr had his eye on pushing the education department to update its educational policy to "interpret more fully and adequately the scientific laws of nature and their significance to man".  He created a document of General Rules for the Planning and Execution of Exhibits in 1951.  This was a nuts-and-bolts document for procedures for exhibit making and approvals.

One change evident in the Exhibits document was that the design of background painting and the topography and arrangement of major objects in the foreground in individual habitat groups would be given final approval when the charcoal drawing on the actual background had been completed.  Previously, these arrangements would be approved at the stage of the scale model and final approval was left to the curator of the hall of habitats.  It isn't spelled out as to who would be giving final approvals, but it seems that Parr was inserting himself into the mix as the final arbiter of the habitat designs.  If that weren't enough, Parr had one last review of the color treatment of the background painting and arrangement of the minor accessories in the foreground before last finishing touches and permanent fixation of accessories.  This critique harkens back to the early 1930's, when one of the early museum presidents, Henry Fairfield Osborn, set up a diorama review committee because of his displeasure with one of the background paintings in the African Hall.  The director of exhibits rather than the director of the museum would have created this kind of document in years past.  It indicates the micro-level of interest Parr had in all aspects of the museum.

Parr also had big ideas for the organization of the museum and his first target was to reduce the amount of space Frank Chapman had used for bird dioramas over the past fifty years.  The Plan and Scope committee made up of curators, administrators, (Osborn-President, Faunce-finance, Wissler-Anthropology/Ethology, Anthony-Mammalogy, Russell-Education, Shapiro,-Anthropology, Burden-Reptiles, and Beach-Animal Behavior) and Parr, directed the Department of Birds to incorporate necessary synoptic exhibits in the newly planned Hall of Biology of Birds.  They also decreed that the hall now used for the Birds of the World on the second floor in the 77th St. wing be made available for a new hall of Invertebrate Paleontology and General Geology. If that weren't enough, the department of Birds was asked to direct its future plans toward the installation of exhibits of North American Birds in or adjacent to the present Whitney Wing, making the present North American Bird Hall available for other purposes.ix

James Perry Wilson finished the North American Mammal Hall and moved to the North American Hall of Forests and the Jeffrey Pine diorama.  By this time Francis Lee Jaques had finished the Olympic Forest diorama background and was starting the ill-fated Timberline group that would be repainted, Matthew Kalmenoff had finished the South Carolina group and the Smoky Mountain-Mixed Deciduous Forest, and Robert Kane had painted the New Hampshire background and the Maple Sugar diorama in the North American Hall of Forests.  Kane had some fun with the maple sugar background, painting James Perry Wilson into the scene with a smirk and shouldering a yoke with two buckets of sap.  Kane and Wilson were close friends and this might have been a good-natured joke since Wilson had a reputation of not being much help when it came to heavy lifting!

James Perry Wilson Maple Sugar Diorama
Maple Sugar diorama, AMNH, close up of James Perry Wilson,
photo by M. Anderson

Kane contracted polio in mid-career and lost the use of his painting arm.  He taught himself how to paint using his other hand.  His style became stiffer, more stylized and the Maple Sugar diorama is a good example of this.  This was Parr's second exhibit hall and it is surprising that there are a total of ten full-scale dioramas, eight of them pristine with no evidence of humans, past or presentx.  In this case, Parr decided that the habitat format would best display each unique forest environment.  There were other didactic displays scattered throughout the hall, many oriented toward the harvesting of lumber.  Parr opened the donor list to owners of lumber or paper industries, some of whom were friends of the board of the museumxi. This set a fundraising trend of dubious merit with soft lines delineating conflict of interest that continues to the present.

Bob Kane Painting Warburg Hall
Bob Kane painting the Warburg Hall,
courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

Wilson traveled to California with Ray deLucia, Tomas Newberry, and Richard Pough on the Jeffrey Pine expedition, leaving New York on June 2, 1954.  They headed first for the Indiana Summit Natural Area in the Inya National Forest.  They located a site looking south over Long Valley toward the Sierra Nevada range with the snow-covered Mount Morrison (12,245 ft.) in the distance.   After collecting the Jeffrey Pine group, they planned to go to Bull Creek Flats Grove near Dyerville, California to collect the Redwood diorama.  Before leaving on the expedition, Tomas Newberry was surprised when his supervisor, Kay Beneker called him into her office and told him that Clarence Hay, the deep-pocketed donor for the North American Hall of Forests, had requested that Newberry go on the expedition to collect the Redwood diorama.   Beneker told him she was also doubling his salary!  Newberry thought that this had come about because Clarence Hay, had noticed and liked his work in the Forest Hall.  Newberry worried that other departmental preparators would not take kindly to his going on the expedition because everyone wanted to go and more senior employees were usually chosen.  This was borne out when Ray deLucia snubbed him on the first part of the trip, telling him he was not welcome to help, that he had the day off, while deLucia collected the foreground material for the Jeffrey Pine.  Newberry spent his time painting landscapes while deLucia collected.

On-site, Wilson went right to work on his photography and painting.  As always, Wilson took his panoramic photographs before he started his painting.  Four photos taken at the Jeffrey Pine site by deLucia and Newberry document the next step: Wilson's painting the background study.  These photos give the best information to date about how Wilson prepared his painted background studies.  In the first photograph, Wilson is sitting with the easel tripod set low.  He has one eye closed and is measuring something in the landscape across his thumb and the handle of his brush.  With his other hand, he is sketching the outlines of the landscape on four side-by-side canvasboards.  This is the first photo I have seen of Wilson getting measurements like this for his paintings.  His on-site paintings have always been highly accurate when compared to the photos taken from the same site.  In this photo, he is sitting down, presumably to keep his eye always at the same level and thus to establish a more reliable and accurate viewpoint.  Wilson never left any notes about how he measured the landscape so accurately, but this is the method traditionally used by plein air painters to get a charcoal outline before painting.   The photographs taken in a panoramic sequence before he began painting gave him a mental picture of the beginning and end of the landscape and then, he used the brush handle to measure landscape features within these parameters.

James Perry Wilson Painting at Jeffrey Pine
James Perry Wilson at the Jeffrey Pine site,
courtesy Library Services, AMN

From the next photo, one can see that Wilson has painted the sky, the far mountain range, the long distant valley, and is working up to the foreground rocks.  This view of the landscape takes up approximately half of the painted panorama.  Another notable detail is that there is a polaroid photograph of the site taped to his tripod.  This polaroid was not seen in the first photo where Wilson is taking measurements, so it is unlikely Wilson used it to sketch in the site.  According to another diorama painter, Jerry Connolly, Wilson would take a polaroid photo of a scene when he began to paint so that when the sun changed he could refer back to the photo to see the original shadow shapes.xii

James Perry Wilson Painting Sierra Nevada
James Perry Wilson at the Jeffrey Pine site,
photo by Ray deLucia

The second half of his painted composition was of pine trees added from another nearby site.  As can be seen in the third and fourth photos, he moved his tripod from the original position to face toward the pines.  The polaroid might have come in handy getting the light from these two discontinuous parts to synch together.  Wilson, now had done enough composite backgrounds that he was comfortable stitching together various sites into one continuous composition and he considered it a viable option to make his backgrounds more descriptive of the desired habitat.  The expedition members returned to New York on July 3, 1954.


James Perry Wilson at the Jeffrey Pine site painting trees,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH


James Perry Wilson at the Jeffrey Pine
James Perry Wilson at the Jeffrey Pine site painting trees,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH

Wilson, on his return, built the scale model for the Jeffrey Pine with Ray deLucia.  Wilson then produced the full-scale charcoal sketch before painting the background.  Meanwhile deLucia constructed the foreground, starting with the rockwork.  The rockwork is all sculpted by hand in wet plaster with no molds.    deLucia told me that he made the circular holes in the rocks with his thumbs in the wet plaster.  The texture was made with a rough sponge.  The tree trunk was built with lumber and wire screen covered with burlap dipped in plaster.  Bark from the western pine trees was stripped off in large sections on-site in California and shipped to New York.  The bark was fitted to the trunk and plaster was used to fill the gaps. The pine needles were dried and painted green, but the diorama preparators found that when the pine needles were dried, they curled like corkscrews.  If they slowly sprinkled sand over the needles to embed them in sand, the needles dried and wouldn't curl.  deLucia had a challenge to produce a glabrous, fuzzy plant called Mule's ears for this diorama.  He made plaster molds from the underside of the leaves in California, then, back home, he created the leaves with paper and wax and added an effective "fuzz" by adhering flocking to the artificial leaf's surface. deLucia collected sagebrush, bitterbrush, Indian paintbrush, and dwarf lupine as well. These smaller plants cover the foreground and have many leaves and small flowers that all had to be fabricated. deLucia kept notes of his foreground collecting and printed them in a small, unpublished article entitled Field Collecting of Habitat Groups.xiii

Jeffrey Pine Diorama
Jeffrey Pine diorama, Ray deLucia making a tree trunk,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH


Jeffrey Pine Diorama
Jeffrey Pine diorama, Ray deLucia adhering bark to tree,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH


Jeffrey Pine Diorama
Jeffrey Pine diorama, Ray deLucia with Mule's Ear leaves,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH

By late 1955, the Jeffrey Pine was finished.  Wilson posed for a photograph in the diorama as if he were painting the background.  All the elements of his painting are staged as if he were at work, but there is no paint on the brush.  The painted site study is in front as well as the stereo photographs and stereo viewer.  The background is finished and the unfinished areas of the painting, starting at his feet and rising up to the right, delineate the foreground tie-in areas (see the photograph at the beginning of this chapter).

Jeffrey Pine Scale Model
Ray deLucia with the Jeffrey Pine scale model, courtesy Library Services, AMNH

Now that Wilson's formula for transferring his reference material was established, he could produce backgrounds in perfect scale and capture the mood of the site with his on-site painting, using the colors that were close as empirically possible to what he had seen on site.  Wilson had succeeded in making the paintings as scientifically accurate as he could.  There would be no more innovations in his last twenty-five dioramas to come except for the odd forced perspective diorama of the Redwood forest that followed this one.

After the Jeffrey Pine group was finished, Wilson helped Harold Anthony design and estimate costs of the fifteen Small Mammal dioramas in the corridor at the west end of the North American Mammal Hall.  He made arrangements with the Peabody Museum to paint four more dioramas in the North American Diorama Hall (planning began in 1954).  By this time Wilson was the master painter at the AMNH and he would have had odds and ends to accomplish with the dioramas, he would have been actively mentoring other artists, and helping with design of museum exhibits.  The Redwood diorama also awaited him.

The idea of using forced perspective to depict a Redwood forest came from Albert Parr.  He had already experimented with forced perspective displays in the Warburg Hall of Ecology and now he suggested it as a way to show the enormous height of the Redwoods without having to construct a huge diorama case.  Wilson was greatly intrigued by the idea.  Here, he could expand his gridding methods more fully into three dimensions, but an oddly, compressed three dimensions that piqued his interest mathematically.  Forced perspective has some elements similar to the anamorphic buffalo Wilson painted on the oblique side wall in the Bison diorama.  What is different in the Redwood group is that the anamorphism is sculptural as well as graphic, so in a sense, Wilson was combining a kind of bas relief sculptural compression with flat, two dimensional distortions to pull off an illusion of deep space and great height.  This can be seen especially in the tree trunks.  The nearest trunk is a flattened curve maybe 12" deep with three-dimensional detail in the bark.  The color is close to the actual color of the tree.  The next tree back is flattened further  approximately 6" deep with no three-dimensional detail.  All detail such as the bark is painted.  The color of the trunk shifts to a cooler gray to enhance the receding perspective.  The most distant tree is completely flat and painted in cooler colors yet.  Wilson described this diorama in an interview with Rudolph Zallinger and Rudolph Freund:

Redwood Diorama
Redwood diorama,
AMNH

Zallinger:  I was wondering if Perry would care to explain about the new technique he used in the Forestry Hall?  You know, the Giant Redwood group.

Wilson:  That was a very special case.  So far it is the only group of its kind in the Museum, but it may possibly serve as a model for future groups.  The problem was to represent the redwoods of California.  Obviously to show such trees at their full size an enormous space would be required.  We simply didn't have that kind of space.  On the other hand a scale model wouldn't have been too convincing.  The idea came from Dr. Parr.  It was the use of forced perspective.

Zallinger:  What do you mean forced perspective?

Wilson:  Well the shell for the group is only seven feet deep and in those seven feet we show a depth of 270 feet.  We did this by putting full size plants in the foreground right next to the glass and very rapidly diminishing the plants in size and shape as the foreground went back.  Not only size and shape, but the amount of relief.  In other words, the plants gradually grew flatter as they went back until finally they were nothing but cut-outs.

Freund:  How did you figure this out?

Wilson:  It was necessary to work out a system of perspective by which you could determine with some precision the scale and the amount of relief at any point in the group.  The group is fan-shaped with a very narrow opening-only 2 feet wide-but a tall one-12 feet high.  It was absolutely necessary to force the spectator to stand in one spot and one spot only.  That is why the opening was so narrow.  We feel it has been pretty successful...I think it has all kinds of possibilities.  Incidentally the accessory work for that group presented an unusual and very difficult problem.  Ordinarily an accessory is made life size, and can be placed anywhere in the foreground that it looks best.  But in this group, where scale was changing constantly, every piece of each accessory had to be planned precisely for the position it was to occupy.  In the case of the leaves which carpet the floor, not only did those have to decrease in size when they went back, but they had to flatten out in depth and we had to make patterns so that the leaves turned at various angles, because the foreshortening would differ according to the angle from which the leaves were seen.xiv

Tomas Newberry was Wilson's foreground preparator for the Redwood diorama.  Kay Beneker, under orders from Clarence Hay, gave Newberry full responsibility for collecting the Redwood foreground. Even so, deLucia continued to collect the foreground and wouldn't pay any attention to Newberry.  At one point Newberry offered his opinion that the trees deLucia was collecting were too large for the diorama, but deLucia cut them down anyway and had them shipped to New York.  When it came time to build the foreground, the trees were too large and were thrown out.xv Richard Pough, as curator-in-charge, worked with Wilson to choose the site.  After the site was chosen, Pough left for New York.  Wilson then did what he always did: took photos and painted the color study.  His painted study is unique with three 12X16" canvasboards stacked vertically making a tall canvas of 16" X 36".  Newberry took stereophotographs of the foreground plants and flowers and made painted color studies as well.  All the specimens that he needed to fabricate models for the foreground at the museum, were collected.  Newberry's birthday coincided with the expedition and Wilson bought him a Stetson cowboy hat as a present.

Redwood Study
Redwood study,
courtesy T. Newberry

Wilson and Newberry produced a full-scale model of the Redwood diorama so they could work out the perspective and foreground details.  As noted, the diorama is only seven feet deep.  The perspective recedes in arcs from the foreground to background.  At the very front, the ferns are full-size at eighteen inches, but at one foot back from the front, the ferns reduce in size to twelve inches high.  At consecutive one foot arcs, the ferns reduce to ten and one half inches high, six inches, three to four and a half inches high.  Finally, at the distant Wiyot Indian who is four and one half inches tall, the ferns stand at one and a half inches.  The oxalis, or redwood sorrel, transits from full-size at nine or ten inches across each whorl to five to six inches at mid distance, and finally one and a half inches at the back.  These examples further illuminate the forced three to two dimensional perspective of this group.

Paper Fern
Paper fern from Redwood diorama with a flat and foreshortened shape,
photo M. Anderson

According to Newberry, Wilson supervised the gridding and foreshortening, though he remembers much was done by eye.  Newberry, with the assistance of Ted Denier, produced the vegetation.  The ferns and plants of the forest floor were made in paper.  At the front, they were fabricated in three dimensions, but as they receded, they flattened and were drawn and cut out to look illusionistically foreshortened.  The tree branches and pine needles were drawn on copper sheets, etched in acid, shaped, and painted.  This was an expensive diorama because it entailed a lot of time-consuming experimentation.  Unfortunately, the expense all but assured that another forced perspective diorama wouldn't be produced.  Wilson and Newberry had put in more than five months on the diorama by May, 1957, but the background had not yet been painted.   The amount charged to the museum at this date was $19,205.28, and Newberry's was $2,385.50.  They would contract Wilson out of retirement for another $1400 to paint the background.  The total cost of the Redwood diorama was over $35,000 and no donors would pay for it, so Clarence Hay stepped in and paid it.

Tomas Newberry working on Redwood Diorama
Tomas Newberry laying out the foreground in the Redwood mock-up,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH

Alan Munro, who had just started working in the exhibits department in the mid 1950’s told about his contribution to the Redwood diorama:
How Perry painted the American natives in the group is a rather interesting story. Perry asked me one day if I would model for him in a Native loin-cloth and I said sure. He borrowed a loin-cloth from somewhere in the Museum's collection--likely Anthropology. I changed into it and climbed up on a table in the middle of the fourth floor and was bent over from the waist like I was picking up cones or nuts or something off the forest floor. I had an authentic Native basket in front of me to put them in. All the other guys were standing around hootin' and carrying on as Perry took a number of Polaroid's and/or black and whites of me.  I was pretty embarrassed, but I still have one of those shots saved away. He used it in the group. I was about 24 or so then.xvi

The Redwood diorama is notable that it is tall (approximately 20') and narrow (5'on either side of the viewing window).  The usual grid to make the sides of the diorama look right wasn't needed.  The sides are mostly blocked by large tree trunks.  Atmospheric perspective is used in both the foreground and the background, but it is most noticeable seen at the tops of the trees.  Here, Wilson pushes the atmospheric effects to make the tops of the trees almost disappear into thin air for great dramatic effect.

Even though there was a lot of kidding and occasional petty irritation between the preparators in the 1950's, everyone mostly got along and they enjoyed the work.  Many collaborated on outside paid projects, some commuted together, their wives and families socialized, and there were even vacations taken together.   Liz deLucia recounts the work environment:

Working conditions were not bad.  Ray loved to go to work no matter what was happening at the museum.  He always jumped out of bed to go.  If there were tensions, such as those created by Ray's unionization efforts in the late 60's, he would go down to the diorama and lose himself in the work.  There was the employee benefit association that gave big bashes, picnics or parties.  There were museum basketball and softball teams that Ray played on and a staff wives organization that put on the big Christmas bash.  Ray knew everyone from all these groups.  The working men were always close.  There were plaster fights and the staged grizzly bear attack that almost cost Ray his job.  There was a lot of goofing off.  The men who were all the same age all got along well and many socialized outside of work, Bob Kane, Charley Tornell, Fred Scherer, Geroge Petersen, Ray, Fred Jalayer, Geroge Campbell.  Perry was like an uncle.  He was always proper and what he considered relaxed seemed uptight to everyone else.  He was like an old lady, a darling old lady. I sewed a button on his sport jacket and put it on so tight, he couldn't button his jacket.  He never said a word about it, but I remember him fumbling with it trying to button it...
Relationships with management were always strained.  Neither James L. Clark or Albert Butler were light-handed as managers.  Gordon Reekie had a hard time relating to the workers.  Lothar Witterborg was not very well liked.  George Petersen was the best of them all.  It was especially helpful to have a manager with experience making the work.  James L. Clark was at least a sculptor.  Ray took the manager's job under Petersen and they were grooming Ray to take over the department, but he didn't like the desk work and requested to be returned to the worker level.xvii


Exhibition Department Christmas party, circa 1950,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH
George Petersen
George Petersen,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH

Tomas Newberry and Fredoin Jalayer worked together on freelance jobs.  Extra paid work was important to many of the preparators trying to live on the museum's meager salary.  At times other museums would contract artists in the Exhibition Department to have models made.  Wealthy board members hired preparators to build small dioramas in their homes, or as in the case of William K. Vanderbilt, a whole museum was built on his Long Islands property with full-size dioramas.   Several board members commissioned James Perry Wilson to paint landscapes or flat painted versions of diorama backgrounds.   The World's Fair came to New York in the 1960s and many artists in the Exhibits Department landed moonlighting jobs working on those exhibits.   After Madison Avenue discovered Newberry, he made props for several of the advertising agencies.  Toward the end of his tenure at the AMNH, Newberry was making three times his Museum salary on outside work.  He and Jalayer worked as a team on many of these commissions.  They had a humorously dysfunctional business relationship or something that resembled a friendship.  They would work together for months and then something would happen-usually having to do with who got paid what-and they would have a fight and not speak to each other for six months.  Eventually, they would go back to working together as if nothing had happened.  Once Jalayer refused to pay Newberry the final installment of a job they did together.  Newberry asked him why and Jalayer said that Newberry had caused him so much stress on the last job, he wasn't going to pay him!  Newberry got him back later on another job using the same excuse not to pay him.

Jalayer Cactus
Fredoin Jalayer fabricating a cactus, courtesy Library Services, AMNH
George Childs
George Childs,
courtesy Library Services, AMNH

James Perry Wilson took several of his summer vacations with members of the AMNH Exhibits department.  He was known to be very adaptable to long drives in uncomfortable, cramped cars with little children.  He inserted himself into the planning, it seems, only at stops for lunch and dinner.  He had a book of recommended restaurants across the country from which he would choose.  He would request that the driver find a way to get to his picks for the day.  Liz deLucia noted that he could be inflexible about where and when to stop.   Wilson and the deLucia family drove out to the Grand Tetons in 1956.  They met up with other painters, Connie Schweiring, Paul Bransom and Grant Hagan.

Another anecdote about restaurants from Alan Munro:
On paydays at the AMNH, Perry would invite me to join him by walking across the Park to the Met's restaurant for a stylish sit down lunch at tables surrounding Milles' fountain sculpture of the 7 Muses. If the weather didn't permit then it was by cab. Tom Newberry and I would at other times walk to a fish market down Amsterdam Ave. to get snails and squid. The squid he would cook back at work over his Bunsen burner along with white rice and the squid's own ink to make his Argentine "black rice with squid". All this was a real treat for me away from my regular workaday bag-lunch of sandwiches. It was at the Met that I learned there was such a wonderful thing as burnt caramel custard dessert. Perry always but always insisted upon treating too. After we would tour the Met he'd answer my many questions about this and that and/or we would just quietly enjoying or pondered the enormity of all the art. I got to see all of the permanent collection halls that way, hall by hall.xviii

Possibly the next summer, 1957 Alan Munro recounts a summer trip with Wilson:
Perry drove with us to Vermont one summer and stayed in Shelburne for about 2 weeks. The drive to Vermont from New York was great as there were 6 of us in our car, 3 adults and 3 kids that Perry adored. He virtually spouted with his famous wit, spoonerisms, riddles and puns all 312 miles of the way totally entertaining all of us! One riddle I still recall was the one that goes like this:
Why is a millionaire who wishes to tag his pet whale like a bronze bull dog that sits at the gate of his seashore estate? Answer:
Due to windy weather one can not tag his whale while the other can not wag his tail.

Wilson retired from the American Museum on his 68th birthday, August 13, 1957 after twenty-three years painting 38 diorama backgrounds.  When James L. Clark left the museum and was succeeded by a rotation of exhibit department directors, Wilson was left to do his work in peace.  He was respected as an elder statesman with enormous talent and broad-ranging intelligence.  He enjoyed a long period where the pace slowed enough for him to finish his paintings to his liking.  He had good friends such as Don Carter and Hobart Van Duesen in the Mammal Department with whom he had lunch.   His routines were regular and the work was steady.   This was just how Wilson liked it and presumably why he retired at the age of 68.  However, he would now continue work as a freelance contractor.





i Albert E. Parr, Mostly About Museums, AMNH publication, 1959, p.33

ii Albert Parr, "What, When, Why, and How in Exhibition",  89th Annual Report, June 1958

iii Parr innovated the Guide-a-phone, a portable earphone and receiving set that transmitted, display by display, lectures through a particular hall.

iv Scheersoi, A. and Tunnicliffe, S., Natural History Dioramas-History, Construction, and Educational Role, (in publication), See chapter: "Shifting Paradigms of Natural History Diorama Painting" by Michael Anderson

v 1957 AMNH Annual Report, AMNH Library Services

vi Albert E. Parr to Clarence Hay, April 10, 1957, AMNH archives.

vii Francis Lee Jaques, Unpublished autobiography, Chapter 36.

viii James L. Clark to A.E.Parr, September 15, 1948, courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

ix Plan and Scope committee minutes July 22, 1942, Courtesy Library Services, AMNH.

x Parr, Anthony and Pough enthusiastically debated about whether to add a beer can in the Sonoran Desert diorama.  They thought it would be unwise to commit it to the diorama permanently.  The beer can may or may not have made it into the diorama.  Presently, there is no can in the diorama.

xi Memorandum to Dr. Parr, Mr. Hay, Mr Pough, Re: Hall of Forest Prospects: American Paper and Pulp Association, Mr. Tinker (secretary) Fraser Co. LTD, Aubrey Crabtree (Pres), Great Northern Paper Co., International Paper Co., St. Regis Paper Co., West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co., Weyerhauser Timber Co., J.P. Weyerhauser Jr. (Pres.) Courtesy Library Services, AMNH.

xii Jerry Connolly, interview, October 29, 1996

xiii This article was copied from the Exhibition Department collection by Steve Quinn.

xiv James Perry Wilson, unpublished interview by Rudy Freund and Rudy Zallinger, circa 1958, American Museum of Natural History Special Collections.

xv Tomas Newberry interview, July 6, 2005

xvi Alan Munro, e-mail correspondence, 5 Nov 2003

xvii Elizabeth DeLucia, interview, May 15, 2004

xviii Alan Munro, e-mail message, January 2, 2004