The word diorama, can either refer to a 19th-century mobile theatre device, or, in modern usage, a three-dimensional full-size or miniature model, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase for a museum. Dioramas are often built by hobbyists as part of related hobbies such as military vehicle modeling, miniature figure modeling, or aircraft modeling.
Diorama is a mass entertainment art, in which the illusion of the presence of the viewer in the natural space is achieved by the synthesis of artistic and technical means.
In its simplest mode, the diorama consists of a base or base supporting the model and complemented by a two-dimensional painted background. In a more evolved mode, the diorama includes an environment also modeled in volume with a wealth of details identical to that of the model.
Dioramas are designed for artificial lighting and are often located in special pavilions. A huge role in the diorama is played by the equipment of the exposition hall and the construction of the viewing platform, as well as light and sound (musical and narrative accompaniment). Most dioramas are dedicated to historical battles. The most widely used diorama in museum practice is a special way of filing documentary material, backed up by imaginative emotionality.
The veracity is obtained by a rendering of the textures and colors closest to the exposed reality (it differs in this from the sculpture) or even by the use of real materials and objects (plants dried according to the techniques of the herbarium, reconstitution of habitats in original materials (skins, adobe, etc.), use of archaeological objects or fossils in their contemporary environment or reconstructions of excavation sites).
The word “diorama” originated in 1823 as a type of picture-viewing device, from the French in 1822. The word literally means “through that which is seen”, from the Greek di- “through” + orama “that which is seen, a sight”. The diorama was invented by Louis Daguerre and Charles Marie Bouton, first exhibited in Paris in July 1822 and in London in September 29, 1823. The meaning “small-scale replica of a scene, etc.” is from 1902.
Daguerre’s and Bouton’s diorama consisted of a piece of material painted on both sides. When illuminated from the front, the scene would be shown in one state and by switching to illumination from behind another phase or aspect would be seen. Scenes in daylight changed to moonlight, a train travelling on a track would crash, or an earthquake would be shown in before and after pictures.
Originally, a diorama was a darkened theater stage invented by Louis Daguerre in the 19th century with a semi-transparent, two-sided differently painted prospectus. Through alternating illumination of front and back, movements and times of day can be effectively simulated. This related to the panorama technique is still used on theaters.
Dioramas are often found in natural history and technical museums and can be very artful. Correctly changing the scale from foreground to background, the seemingly seamless transition from sculptural landscape elements to the painted background and skillful lighting can achieve an almost perfect illusion of spatial depth and realism – a kind of three-dimensional trompe l’oeil painting, which lets the viewer look at the world like a giant. In natural history museums there are life-size dioramas in which prepared or reconstructed animals are presented in their biotope-inspired backdrops. The world’s largest diorama is located at Disneyland in Anaheim, California; it represents the Grand Canyon.
In this tradition is also the use of the word diorama in model railway construction. It is not an entire system designed, but only items that are to provide a scenic illusion even outside the track area and represent detailed scenes. Modular model railway construction results in very detailed systems.
Also in other areas of model making so-called dioramas are often created, for example in military model making. However, these are not real dioramas, since only a manageable landscape section or a scene from the real world is reproduced as faithfully as possible on a base plate. A background that wants to create an optical illusion of space and is an essential feature of the diorama is missing.
Ships’ waterline models have been and are often presented in a flat peep-box in the style of a three-dimensional image. The manufacture of (sailing) ship dioramas is next to the Buddelschiffbau a characteristic craftsmanship of the sailors in the 19th and 20th centuries. As a motif, the model makers usually chose what they had in mind every day: the sailing ship in the fight against the sea, the entrance to the harbor against a picturesque backdrop or the takeover of the pilot. The construction of dioramas instead of other models also had a practical reason: between sessions, the model was protected in its wooden box and could easily be stowed under the bunk or behind the lake box.
The modern diorama:
The current, popular understanding of the term “diorama” denotes a partially three-dimensional, full-size replica or scale model of a landscape typically showing historical events, nature scenes or cityscapes, for purposes of education or entertainment.
One of the first uses of dioramas in a museum was in Stockholm, Sweden, where the Biological Museum opened in 1893. It had several dioramas, over three floors. They were also implemented by the National Museum Grigore Antipa from Bucharest Romania and constituted a source of inspiration for many important museums in the world (such as the Museum of Natural History of New York and the Great Oceanographic Museum in Berlin) [reference below].
Miniature dioramas are typically much smaller, and use scale models and landscaping to create historical or fictional scenes. Such a scale model-based diorama is used, for example, in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to display railroading. This diorama employs a common model railroading scale of 1:87 (HO scale). Hobbyist dioramas often use scales such as 1:35 or 1:48.
An early, and exceptionally large example was created between 1830 and 1838 by a British Army officer. William Siborne, and represents the Battle of Waterloo at about 7.45 pm, on 18 June, 1815. The diorama measures 8.33 by 6 metres (27.3 by 19.7 ft) and used around 70,000 model soldiers in its construction. It is now part of the collection of the National Army Museum in London.
Sheperd Paine, a prominent hobbyist, popularized the modern miniature diorama beginning in the 1970s.
Full size dioramas
Modern museum dioramas may be seen in most major natural history museums. Typically, these displays use a tilted plane to represent what would otherwise be a level surface, incorporate a painted background of distant objects, and often employ false perspective, carefully modifying the scale of objects placed on the plane to reinforce the illusion through depth perception in which objects of identical real-world size placed farther from the observer appear smaller than those closer. Often the distant painted background or sky will be painted upon a continuous curved surface so that the viewer is not distracted by corners, seams, or edges. All of these techniques are means of presenting a realistic view of a large scene in a compact space. A photograph or single-eye view of such a diorama can be especially convincing since in this case there is no distraction by the binocular perception of depth.
Among the most common uses of the dioramas are the main ones for technical, especially engineering and architectural (reproduction of buildings, industrial objects and surfaces), education and hobby (modeling) that allows you to recreate particular settings in scale, trying to achieve effects as realistic as possible.
In museums of science or technology, dioramas are used to represent reconstructions of scenes of natural life, animals or human beings, work environments, etc.
Miniature dioramas may be used to represent scenes from historic events. A typical example of this type are the dioramas to be seen at Norway’s Resistance Museum in Oslo, Norway.
Natural history dioramas seek to imitate nature and, since their conception in the late 19th century, aim to “nurture a reverence for nature [with its] beauty and grandeur”. They have also been described as a means to visually preserve nature as different environments change due to human involvement. They were extremely popular during the first half of the 20th century, both in the USA and UK, later on giving way to television, film, and new perspectives on science.
Like historical dioramas, natural history dioramas are a mix of two- and three-dimensional elements. What sets natural history dioramas apart from other categories is the use of taxidermy in addition to the foreground replicas and painted background. The use of taxidermy means that natural history dioramas derive not only from Daguerre’s work, but also from that of taxidermists, who were used to preparing specimens for either science or spectacle.
In the modeling field, the diorama is used to reproduce real or imaginary scenarios in which to insert each type of subject. Among the most widespread scenarios are railways, car routes, battlefields and so on. Even the classic crib representation can be considered in all respects a diorama.
The most classic and known dioramas are probably those used in the field of railway modeling, which recreate a small railway with electric trains running and integrated in the landscape, like level crossings, lights, barriers, roads and other landscape elements.
More recent and rising among the younger modelers are the science fiction dioramas, such as those made by fans of the Star Wars movie series or anime series like Gundam. Lately the diorama with real subjects is also very popular, often representing war scenes or plastic models of scale models, often 1/35. In many Italian cities and not many awards competitions have recently been held.
Landscapes built around model railways can also be considered dioramas, even though they often have to compromise scale accuracy for better operating characteristics.
Hobbyists also build dioramas of historical or quasi-historical events using a variety of materials, including plastic models of military vehicles, ships or other equipment, along with scale figures and landscaping.
In the 19th and beginning 20th century, building dioramas of sailing ships had been a popular handcraft of mariners. Building a diorama instead of a normal model had the advantage that in the diorama, the model was protected inside the framework and could easily be stowed below the bunk or behind the sea chest. Nowadays, such antique sailing ship dioramas are valuable collectors’ items. One of the largest dioramas ever created was a model of the entire State of California built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and that for a long time was installed in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Dioramas are
The diorama technique has been widely used for the realization of three-dimensional stories – above all fairy tales, biblical stories or scientific illustration – for steroscopic systems such as View-Master, Tru-Vue and other similar.
In the case of the View-Master, a real team of artists was at work in the Portland firm to sculpt and model characters and scenarios to be filmed through the stereoscopic photographic technique, in order to allow an illusion of three-dimensional once the slides 3-D are displayed with a special viewer. Among the most appreciated artists, specialized in this technique, there were Florence Thomas and Joe Liptak.
Especially in the field of fantasy wargames and role-playing games, the diorama can represent a fantasy scene linked in some way to the game, to a book or a film. In particular, scenarios are created by constructing various elements such as hills, houses, woods, for the development of battles in games such as Warhammer and Warhammer 40.000 or Confrontation. In this case the dioramas are arranged so as to recreate the tactical scene in which the miniatures of the two (or more) deployments move. They can therefore represent duels, guerrilla scenes or particularly spectacular battles, waiting moments such as the moment before the ambush by one creature to another or stalking.
In painting, the term diorama or cyclorama indicates particular large circular paintings on which the panorama is painted, taken from a fixed point around 360 °. Mounted in well-prepared environments, suitably illuminated, the paintings allow visitors, through a tunnel in the observation center, to have a panoramic overview of the painted landscape.
A diorama painted in 1880 by H.W. Mesdag, which represents the panorama of Scheveningen, is visible (it was a few years back) in The Hague, in Zeestraat n. 65-b, within the Panoramaq Mesdag.
Preparations for the background begin on the field, where an artist takes photographs and sketches references pieces. Once back at the museum, the artist has to depict the scenery with as much realism as possible. The challenge lies in the fact that the wall used is curved: this allows the background to surround the display without seams joining different panels. At times the wall also curves upward to meet the light above and form a sky. By having a curved wall, whatever the artist paints will be distorted by perspective; it is the artist’s job to paint in such a way that minimises this distortion.
The foreground is created to mimic the ground, plants and other accessories to scenery. The ground, hills, rocks, and large trees are created with wood, wire mesh, and plaster. Smaller trees are either used in their entirety or replicated using casts. Grasses and shrubs can be preserved in solution or dried to then be added to the diorama. Ground debris, such as leaf litter, is collected on site and soaked in wallpaper paste for preservation and presentation in the diorama. Water is simulated using glass or plexiglass with ripples carved on the surface. For a diorama to be successful, the foreground and background must merge, so both artists have to work together.
Taxidermy specimens are usually the centrepiece of dioramas. Since they must entertain, as well as educate, specimens are set in lifelike poses, so as to convey a narrative of an animal’s life. Smaller animals are usually made with rubber moulds and painted. Larger animals are prepared by first making a clay sculpture of the animal. This sculpture is made over the actual, posed skeleton of the animal, with reference to moulds and measurements taken on the field. A papier-mâché mannequin is prepared from the clay sculpture and the animal’s tanned skin is sewn onto the mannequin. Glass eyes substitute the real ones.