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Small Wonders: Five of the World’s Most Elaborate Dioramas

A visitor to a museum today is often confronted by an array of electronic gadgetry and interactive displays exhibiting the museum’s content in a manner that will appeal to our technology addicted society. However, amid all of the touch screens and HD animation, a form of museum exhibit that originated in the 19th century endures as a medium that still can dazzle viewers.

Invented in the 1820s by Louis Daguerre of daguerreotype photography fame, the diorama is a three-dimensional model of a realistic scene, frequently displayed against a painted background. Dioramas have been utilized to portray wildlife in natural habitats, historic events, famous battles, landscapes, or simply scenes of everyday life. Some of the most captivating exhibits in museum collections across the globe are miniature dioramas displaying people, places, and things in exquisite detail at a fraction of their original size.

Here is a sampling of five elaborate museum dioramas that present a miniaturized view of the world.

Fisher Museum
Petersham, Massachusetts

article-imageDiorama in the Fisher Museum (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

In western Massachusetts, Harvard University owns and manages over 3,000 acres of land, aptly named the Harvard Forest, which it operates as a field lab and research center for the study of forestry.

In the middle of the forest, the Fisher Museum houses 23 striking dioramas depicting New England woodlands. Built by the Cambridge studio of Pittman & Guernsey, creators of many highly detailed dioramas, the models are incredibly lifelike scenes illustrating the history, development, and biology of the forest habitat.

article-imageCase 12 - Thinning a 60 Year Pine-Hardwood Stand (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia) 

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Case 12 - Hemlock White Pine Forest & Harvard Pond (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

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Case 5 - The Abandoned Farm Produces a White Pine Crop (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

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Case 21 - Forest Fire (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

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Case 1 - The Precolonial Forest (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

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Case 16 - Pruning White Pine (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

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Case 20 (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

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Case 13 - Hemlock & White Pine Forest & Harvard Pond (photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia)
 

 

Australian War Memorial
Canberra, Australia

article-imagePart of the Battle of Lone Pine diorama in the Gallipoli Gallery at the Australian War Memorial (photograph by Bidgee, via Wikimedia)

The medium of the diorama is particularly well suited to the depiction of battles and military scenes. In vivid and sometimes gruesome detail, these miniature models help to convey to viewers the horrors of war.

Constructed in the 1920s, the dioramas of the Australian War Memorial document the experiences of Australian solders during World War I. Among the displays are harrowing scenes of trench warfare along the Western Front, cavalry charges, and of course, the clash between Australian and Turkish forces at Gallipoli.

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In the bunkers (photograph by David Francis)

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In the trenches (photograph by David Francis)

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Diorama of the Australian Front (photograph by Christopher Neugebauer)

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Horseback charge (photograph by David Francis)

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Battlescene (photograph by Christopher Neugebauer)

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Throwing a grenade (photograph by Christopher Neugebauer)

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Naval battle (photograph by Christopher Neugebauer)

article-imageDerancourt Diorama (photograph by Ian Sutton)

 

Ringling Circus Museum
Sarasota, Florida

article-imagephotograph by Zinnia Jones

If you are going to make a diorama of the Greatest Show on Earth, it had better live up to the billing. Howard C. Tibbals did just that, working for over 50 years to create a model circus that covers 3,800 square feet and contains over 44,000 pieces.

Displayed in the Tibbals Learning Center at the Ringling Circus Museum, Tibbals’ model is dubbed “the world’s largest miniature circus.” Although Tibbals called his creation the “Howard Bros. Circus” because he was denied permission to use the Ringling name, his diorama is an exact recreation of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey traveling show from the years 1919-1938.

The diorama features thousands of human figures, hundreds of animals, eight large tents, side stages, vehicles, concession stands, and a railroad yard complete with models of the train cars that brought the circus from town to town.

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photograph by Zinnia Jones

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photograph by Zinnia Jones

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photograph by Zinnia Jones

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photograph by Zinnia Jones

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photograph by Mingo Hagen

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photograph by Zinnia Jones

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photograph by Zinnia Jones

article-imagephotograph by Zinnia Jones

 

Jaca Citadel Military Miniatures Museum
Jaca, Spain

article-imagevia Jaca Citadel Miniatures Museum

The Jaca Citadel is an imposing pentagon-shaped fortress located in northeastern Spain. Built in the 16th century to defend against invasion by the French, the Citadel today is home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of military dioramas.

The Military Miniatures Museum originated from the efforts of one man, Carlos Royo-Villanova, who amassed over 32,000 miniature soldiers representing armies from all over the world and across a wide range of historic periods. The collection was moved to the Citadel in 2001, and the soldiers are now displayed throughout twenty three dioramas depicting miniaturized recreations of battles and armies spanning from ancient Egypt to the 20th century.

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via Jaca Citadel Miniatures Museum

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via Jaca Citadel Miniatures Museum

article-imagevia Jaca Citadel Miniatures Museum

Heichal Shlomo Museum
Jerusalem, Israel

article-imagephotograph by Deror Avi

Chronicling 4,000 years of history is not an easy task, even when done in a miniaturized form. At the Heichel Shlomo Museum in Jerusalem, a series of thirty dioramas tell the story of the Jewish people from Abraham’s journey to Canaan up through the establishment of the State of Israel.

Created by British artist David Stokes in 1958, the dioramas are displayed in glass cases ranging in size from two and half to five feet in length. An enormous crowd of one-inch tall figurines depict such epic biblical scenes as the parting of the Red Sea, Joshua’s triumph at the battle of Jericho, and the Revelation on Mount Sinai. 

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photograph by Deror Avi

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photograph by Deror Avi

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photograph by Deror Avi

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photograph by Deror Avi

article-imagephotograph by Deror Avi


Discover more of the world’s most dramatic dioramas on Atlas Obscura >