The Jungle in the Peephole

The diorama is the ultimate paradox. As a repository of historical knowledge within the cultural institution, it aspires to create the impression of veracity, authenticity, and stability of content. However, it achieves those very goals through illusion, theatre, and provisional craft. The inherent self-contradiction of the diorama lies in the polarity between its means and its ends, and makes it a tantalising subject of critique. By comparing what it is trying to tell us with how it is materialising that argument, as viewers we can witness the construction of official fact as a creative and thus subjective action.

The first dioramas emerged in the 1820s, referring to large picture-viewing theatres in Paris and London, in which large paintings would be “animated” by the gradual movements of sunlight directed through layers of semi-transparent linen (a technique perfected by Louis Daguerre and Charles Marie Bouton). By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the Lumière brothers could project a motion-picture of similar size using their easily portable cinématographe, consigning the complex architectural construction of the diorama to their inevitable obsolescence.

As the subterfuge of the original diorama was eclipsed by the enchantment of film, the word “diorama” itself evolved a secondary meaning—a biological habitat group in an accurate natural context, depicted through painted backgrounds and preserved or modelled objects. Many biological or natural history museums in Europe and the United States began to adapt their displays to highlight the increasing information gained through the growth in multiple technologies related to ocean travel, cartography, guns, photography, preservation of organic substances, taxidermy, and scientific taxonomy. The process would reach its zenith in the work of Carl Akeley, who began preparations for the African Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in 1909. Akeley described the diorama as a “peephole into the jungle”, emphasising his efforts to match the experience of the diorama to what he had personally seen on expeditions to the Belgian Congo.

As in the contradiction between veracity and stagecraft, Akeley’s dioramas were equally paradoxical. Through the killing of multiple gorillas in his search for the perfect specimens, he created a utopian view of nature in order to enlighten King Albert I of Belgium to the value of animal conservation. In 1925, he founded Africa’s first national park, an episode foregrounded against a history of brutal colonialism and exploitation of ivory and rubber. In her 1984 essay “Teddy Bear Patriarchy”, Donna Haraway critiques the guise of scientific accuracy invoked by Akeley’s dioramas, instead describing them as “meaning-machines” developed for the “production of permanence”, using what animal historian Jonathan Burt called the “aesthetics of livingness” to ensnare viewers in the official museum narrative.

Like natural history exhibitions, museum displays of design have often exploited the sensation of “livingness” or “lived-in-ness” for greater empathy and more vivid imaginative response on the part of the audience. The use of period rooms, most famously pioneered by Artur Hazelius at Stockholm’s Nordiska Museet and later brought to the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris, emphasised the symbolic and material resonance between the furnishing of a room and the practical and spiritual lifestyle of its corresponding inhabitants. In opposition to the cabinet of curiosities, whose encyclopaedic contents demonstrated the worldliness of its owner through the breadth of category, age, material, and origin of objects, the design diorama restricted the content in the pursuit of plausibility, making a mise-en-scène of an essentialist utopia.

In light of this history, the installation of Studio Makkink & Bey can be considered as an experimental departure from the archetypal diorama, in both material and symbolic terms. Emphasising the fundamentally personal nature of the designed utopia, the couple have recreated their own living room as recorded in a photograph published in the Dutch newspaper NRC on 10 October 2015. The decision of the designers to turn the curatorial lens back on themselves asserts their authorship over the historical narrative, which museums traditionally control through collection and acquisition. But the diorama challenges the objectivity of this narrative: by choosing a self-consciously staged image, taken by a press photographer with an exaggerated lens, they reveal the fictional distortion of real spaces by the documentary gaze. At the same time, the accompanying digital index inverts the diorama as an impermeable, self-reflective bubble, instead linking each object to a growing network of friends, collaborators, and ancestors who have left traces on the couple’s living space over decades.

The reconstruction of the living room in blue foam, meanwhile, points to the technological impatience of the diorama format as it reconciles the conflict between authenticity, preservation, data collection, and re-enactment. Makkink & Bey have often used extruded polystyrene foam for the infinite possibilities suggested by its “unfinishedness”, its secondary status as a material more appropriate to models than to real furniture. In this case, however, it is not merely the provisional nature of the foam but its correspondence to virtual geometries and affinity for precise cutting and milling through computerised manufacture that makes it critical to the future of the diorama. Like the solitary tree falling in the forest without a sound, in today’s increasingly digitised world, the word, image, or object that has not been scanned and stored in a searchable database does not exist. The diorama does not imitate the materiality of Makkink and Bey’s living room, but rather encodes and reproduces it as an indexed, networked, and modelled environment, even as it revels in the glitches and blind spots of the scanned aesthetic. As scale and texture cede their meaning to the optics of the screen, the diorama is reinvented as the jungle in a peephole.