Diorama Artists | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

When it debuted in 1925, the expansion that included these habitats was proudly announced as the world's first large museum building in which permanent displays were lighted only and entirely by artificial light.
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The Making of a Diorama

The Habitat Views video considers ways of looking at dioramas today, and documents the creation of several new displays. Take a look over on our  YouTube channel >

The Art of Taxidermy. Yes, Art.

There are not many art forms more misunderstood than taxidermy. Perhaps the greatest misperception is its basic technique. Museum taxidermist Tim Bovard sculpts over an animal’s skeleton with clay, and from a mold of that clay sculpture, makes a lightweight mannequin (urethane foam today; burlap, plaster and papier-mâché in decades past), which he then pulls the skin over. It takes a sculptor's hands, and an expert eye for animal anatomy.

Mammalogy Contacts

Jim Dines
Collections Manager
(213) 763-3400
jdines@nhm.org

David Janiger
Curatorial Assistant
(213) 763-3369
djaniger@nhm.org

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A Taste of History

Fellows members have the opportunity to see the Museum's vast collection of historical artifacts from Hollywood memorabilia, automobiles and cookbooks. Enjoy a unique meal at one of Los Angeles' historic sites with one of our history experts for a delightful Taste of History!
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Diorama Artists

The habitat halls were an integral part of the expansion of the Museum (then the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art) in the early 1920s. They provided visitors with a close-up view of the natural environments in which the animals were found. This was a particularly important aspect of the Museum's mission because, even then, many of the larger mammals were becoming rare due to human encroachment into their preferred habitats. 

In 1920 the Hon. R. F. McLellan, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Los Angeles County, organized an expedition to Alaska to secure specimens for the new Museum exhibits. These and other specimens were incorporated into the first new wing of the Museum, which opened on November 27, 1925 and featured North American habitats on the main floor. The new extension was proudly announced as the world’s first large museum building in which permanent display groups were lighted only and entirely by artificial light. The bison exhibit, comprising animals that had been collected from Antelope Island in Utah’s Great Salt Lake but displayed in a setting depicting the Platte River of Nebraska, was at that time the world’s largest permanent group display of a single species of mammal.

The African Mammal Hall opened in 1930 and was made possible by the generous offer of Mr. Leslie Simson to provide, at his own expense, examples of a comprehensive suite of large African mammals. The North American Mammal Hall on the second floor was open by the time of the 1932 Olympics, when it was described as a hall of marine, avian and mammalian habitat groups. The mammal mounts in all three halls utilized state-of-the-art techniques and the backgrounds were painted by well-known artists.

In the ensuing years, new species have been added to the dioramas of all three halls and some of the scenes have been changed. For example, the geographic setting of the bison herd is now Wyoming. However, because the depicted habitats were meticulously researched, they have continued to provide an accurate record of the environments in which the large mammals of Africa and North America may still be found. All the dioramas in the main floor African and North American Mammal Halls were refurbished and re-lamped in January 2006. The second floor North American Hall was refurbished in May 2007. New birds, reptiles and insects continue to be added to the dioramas.

About the Diorama Artists

Robert C. Clark (1920-unknown)
Clark, who worked in oils rather than acryllics, had a soft-focus painting style. He was active at the Museum from 1954-1962.

Charles Abel Corwin (1857-1938)
Corwin was a lithographer and painter, although his speciality was Museum murals and habitat background preparation. Born in Newburgh New York, he began his art studies in New York City, and then studied in Munich with the celebrated artist Frank Duveneck. Most of Corwin’s active career was in New York City, although he also spent a great deal of time in Chicago where he taught at the Art Institute. He belonged to the Chicago Society of Artists, the Salmagundi Club, and the Bronx Artist Guild.

Corwin’s work was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago (1900) where he won a prize, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art between 1901 and 1906, the Chicago Society of Artists, the Boston Art Club (1906-1907), the California Artists, Golden Gate Memorial Museum (1916), the San Francisco Art Association, and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (1916).

Florence Bryant MacKenzie (1890-1968)
Bryant MacKenzie was born in Boston and studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, the National School of Fine & Applied Arts, and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. In 1933 she married artist Frank J. MacKenzie (her second marriage). She maintained studios in San Francisco and in Washington, DC where she was the head artist for the Bureau of Exhibits and United States Forestry Service from 1917-42. She was a member of the Washington Art Club, Society for Sanity in Art, and Society of Western Artists. She exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) during the 1930s and at the Society for Sanity in Art, California Palace of Legion of Honor in the 1940s.

Frank J. Mackenzie (1865-1939)
MacKenzie (1865-1939) was born in London, England, where he studied at the Royal Academy and won the Turner gold medal and a traveling fellowship. He later studied in Paris at Académie Julian. After spending some time in southern Africa, he came to the United States to design the Boer War exhibit at the St Louis World's Fair of 1904. He moved to San Francisco in 1910 but also maintained a studio-home in Washington, DC.

He painted dioramas at many museums across the United States including the Hall of Sciences and African Hall in Golden Gate Park (San Francisco), American Museum of Natural History, Springfield (Massachusetts) Museum, and the Trenton (New Jersey) Museum. He was the husband of artist Florence Bryant MacKenzie and died in San Francisco.

Clark Provins (1910-1991)
By 1940's, the Idaho-born Provins had moved to Los Angeles. He had a career as a diorama artist and scenic painter in the film and television industry (he's listed today as an uncredited scenic artist on the "Wizard of Oz"). He painted at the Museum in the late 1960s and early '70s. Provins was renowned for both his talent and the fact that he painted dioramas backgrounds in his underwear: the dioramas weren't air conditioned, and Provins wasn't shy.

Hanson Duvall Puthuff (1875-1972)
Puthuff was born in 1875 in Waverly, Missouri. After studying at the Chicago Art Institute, he moved to Colorado for art training in 1893 at the University of Denver Art School and then the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He was an established pictorial artist when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1903, where he worked for the next twenty-three years as a commercial artist, primarily painting billboards as well as a theater scene painter. He also was a significant teacher of private art classes. His great love, however, was "plein aire" landscape painting, which he took up full time in 1926. In addition to his own artistic achievements, Puthuff was an activist in the art community. He was assisted in the formation of the two most important artists organizations of the period, the California Art Club and the Art Students League of Los Angeles. He won numerous awards including a Diploma from the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in 1892 and Silver Medals at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. He was a member of numerous clubs, including the California Art Club, the Laguna Beach Art Association, the Los Angeles Watercolor Society, the Pasadena Society of Artists, the Salmagundi Club of New York, the San Francisco Art Association, and the Southern States Art Association, and the Southern States Art League.

Robert Russell Reid
Reid began his professional career as a commercial illustrator. After ten years in advertising he obtained his first commission as a muralist, creating a life-sized depiction of an Indian village for the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This led to several dioramas for the Wilbur May Museum in Reno, Nevada, the "Penguin Encounter" in San Diego's Sea World, and numerous movie and commercial set backdrops. Reid joined the museum staff in 1985. During the past twenty years he has painted many of the backgrounds for the African Mammal Hall dioramas and two of the dioramas in the North American Mammal Hall. He was also responsible for much of the art in the Schreiber Hall of Birds, the background for the Chaparral Hall, and two murals for the Page Museum. In addition, he has contributed many smaller paintings and illustrations for the museum's traveling exhibit program as well as artwork for the Petersen Automotive Museum and Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. Reid came to the Museum in 1984, and stayed through 2012.

Duncan Alanson Spencer (1911-1999)
Duncan Spencer was born in Los Angeles and studied art at the Chouinard Art Institute in the 1930s. He then took further instruction in watercolor painting from Arthur Beaumo and became a member of the American Watercolor Society. He worked as a scenic artist in the motion picture industry from the 1940s through the 1970s. He also produced California Style watercolor paintings depicting regional subjects and exhibited them in annual watercolor society shows. Spencer produced a number of large scale background dioramas featuring landscape subjects for museum and corporate displays.