Miniature Worlds: Model Dioramas in American Anthropology

Lecture | August 31 | 6:30-8 p.m. |  Hearst Museum of Anthropology

 Ira Jacknis

 Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology

The two decades around 1900 were a critical time for the development of museum anthropology in America. Along with burgeoning collections came innovative modes of public display such as the life-group dioramas of costumed mannequins and the miniature dioramas of ethnographic villages and archaeological sites. During this period both genres made the transition from international expositions to permanent exhibitions in major museums such as Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian.

There was a complex relationship between the key personnel involved: the supervising anthropologist with experience in the field and the artist back at the museum. Many of the artists were women, whose work has been poorly credited. In several notable cases, artists who began creating models ended up becoming anthropologists, even museum directors.

As a form of representation, these models excelled in creating a sense of cultural context. Among the subjects, houses were the dominant theme, but most ethnographic models featured the gathering and processing of food. They also showed interactions between men and women, and adults and children. For archaeological sites, which could not be easily viewed and comprehended on the ground, miniatures were a privileged form of visual presentation; also allowing the possibility of reconstruction and restoration. In addition to personal knowledge, sources included photographs, measured plans, and Native artifacts. Yet, as in the large life-groups, there were varying degrees of accuracy and artistic license.

Miniature dioramas have remained dominant forms of scientific popularization down to the present. This talk summarizes what will be the first comprehensive study of this important mode of exhibition.

Since 1991, Ira Jacknis (PhD, University of Chicago, 1989) has served as research anthropologist at the Phoebe Hearst Museum. His principal research interests include Native American art and culture, museums, non-verbal modes of anthropological representation (still photos, film, sound recording), and the history of anthropology.