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Museum Artists

The habitat dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History were created by a team of artists who traveled on field expeditions to make documentations and measurements for the later use at the Museum.

During these expeditions that often lasted for months, the artists played three professional roles. The first was the background artist who would survey the landscape and geological features using drawing, painting, photography and notes. The second was the accessory artist who sampled details of the environment such as rocks, botany and small animals. The accessory artist also made extensive color notes documenting the botanical specimens that were designated for replication. The most daunting tasks were assigned to the taxidermy artist, whose job involved tracking, hunting, skinning and measuring animals for display inside the dioramas.

The museum’s practices for acquiring specimens for taxidermy have evolved as the cultural ethics towards game hunting have changed. In the early 20th century, trophy and game hunting was a popular activity. This legacy has given the museum a collection of record size game that would be impossible to procure with modern ethics and laws about hunting. It is important to note that many of the AMNH artists were early pioneers of animal rights. Their efforts helped bring about legal changes about game and sport hunting around the world, ensuring some form of protection for the endangered species.

Despite being paid employees of the Museum, these artists were also adventurers who sought unique life experiences, taking great risks to create their art. For example, James L. Clark was kidnapped by bandits in the Gobi Desert during a record breaking 3,000 mile expedition through Asia. Robert Kane caught malaria in the Belgian Congo and was hospitalized in various African locations for several months. Carl Akeley endured a punctured lung, broken nose and severe facial trauma after barely surviving an elephant charge. A few years later, Akeley died of fever in the Belgian Congo during the Museum's Akeley-Eastman-Pomeroy Expedition while researching the Mikeno mountain for the creation of the Gorilla Group diorama.