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The McCoy Hall Victorian Fauna Dioramas:
at least some things stay the same

John Kean

In the twentieth century, the diorama came to symbolise museums. A child could visit a museum, gaze in fascination at a group of animals in a miraculously detailed landscape, then revisit it several decades later to stand in exactly the same place, see exactly the same scene and feel comforted - 'at least some things stay the same'.

Eastern Diorama mm008200
Children standing in front of the Eastern Grey Kangaroo diorama, one of the first completed in 1940. The Loch Ard Gorge is recognisable in the background. In 1985 this diorama was restored and fringe lilies and New England honeyeaters added.
Photographer: David Loram.

Dioramas are enigmatic artefacts hovering enticingly between reality and illusion. The surreal stillness of the recreated natural environment paradoxically shrouds the very chaos of nature that the diorama purported to represent, and which today renders them rather archaic interpretive strategies. The 'frozen moment' is now seen to be a profoundly limited take on nature. Contemporary scientists and educators focus on ecological systems, behavioural ecology, microbiology and a host of other dynamic disciplines to interpret our natural environment. Yet even in a period which acknowledges such complexity, and has much more sophisticated representational media at its disposal, the diorama retains considerable fascination. The diorama maintains a place at the accessible apex of 'realistic' representation because it symbolises the art that people recognise and desire. It is also an artefact representing, to many people, 'the perfect mating of science and art'. [Stevens, quoted in K. Wonders, Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History (ACTA Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1993), 221.]

The Victorian Fauna Series, a continuous sequence of illusions created in alcoves around McCoy Hall, were a powerful part of the experience of the National Museum of Victoria for at least three generations of Victorians. Begun in 1940 and continued into the 1960s, they stand as an important milestone in the evolving engagement of non-Aboriginal Australians with their local environment. But such was their longevity that by the time of their dismantling in 1998 they could also be read as revealing social documents of mid twentieth century Melbourne.

In the public imagination, the habitat diorama was a potent form of landscape representation. For many Victorian children the experience of the National Museum's dioramas both preceded and was more persuasive than a visit to an art gallery. While the Australian landscape has been central to the formation of our national identity, and volumes have been written about landscape painting, the habitat diorama, as a genre, has been conspicuously neglected.

Karen Wonders in Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History, argues that dioramas became popular in Sweden and the United States because 'wildness' still existed in the extreme north of Scandinavia and in Alaska, and that these sites were the frontier in which the true character of the nation could be symbolically located in nature. For urban audiences on the East Coast of North America, untamed places of sublime landscape to the far north and west represented something that was believed to lie at the core of the American spirit. Consequently dioramas chosen to represent America were often dramatic landscapes that provided a stage not only for the animals (which were often both large and dangerous) but also for the landscapes themselves, which were portrayed as conveying a nationalist sense of 'manifest destiny'.

What then did the McCoy Hall dioramas tell us about the role of landscape and its creatures in the imagination of mid twentieth century Melburnians? They featured primary national emblems: the kangaroo (1940) and the emu (1942), as well as the perennial favourites, the platypus and koala (1940), but there are also dioramas featuring less conspicuous creatures such as the eastern shrike tit (1950) and the pink robin (1955). The landscapes were accessible and familiar. Typically, the animals were non-threatening, except the deadly eastern tiger snake (1953) basking on a rock shelf at the ominously named Skeleton Creek. Only the wedge-tailed eagle on a rock ledge of Mt Bellfield in Grampians (1940) hinted at the sublime possibilities inherent in the Australian landscape.

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