Peek behind the scenes at the Academy of Natural Sciences

An elephant diorama in the Unnatural History exhibit. Credit: Lori Nix Lori Nix offers a playful take on the classic science museum diorama.
Credit: Lori Nix

Generations of visitors have marveled at the dioramas in Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences, watching apprehensively the puma perpetually poised to attack the unsuspecting mule deer, or aahing at the protective mother gorilla keeping watch over her baby. But it’s what goes on behind these frozen majestic scenes, in the storage rooms and hidden spaces of the natural history museum, that fascinates photographer Lori Nix.

“We see the very academic presentation of these dioramas,” Nix says, “but you know that in the storerooms they have all kinds of crazy things up on the shelves, covered in plastic and dust. The workers might have a bit of fun by putting fake noses on the animals in storage – you just never know. I’m sure what we don’t see is just as exciting as what we do see.”

Nix takes a whimsical peek behind that curtain in her new show, “Unnatural History: The Odd and Remarkable Dioramas of Lori Nix,” opening this weekend at the academy. Nix’s playful black and white images capture miniature depictions of dodos run amok or a snow machine parked alongside a wintry scene in progress.

The “Unnatural History” series provides a lighthearted contrast to Nix’s more serious work, which also involves dioramas. Her usual pieces take up to seven months to create as she toils over intensely detailed architecture or cityscapes. In contrast, these pieces generally take only a week and are made up of plastic animals, discarded materials and objects found around her Brooklyn studio.

Growing up in a small town in Kansas, Nix didn’t spend her childhood gazing at the dioramas in a nearby museum. Instead, she says, “The only thing I had were people’s hunting trophies up on the wall; lots of deer heads, lots of pheasants. Not in my house — my dad wasn’t that kind of hunter — but that was the culture.”

Her work grew less out of exposure to larger scale dioramas — though she now makes a habit of studying them in every major city she visits — than in the desire to craft her own worlds as subjects. “I’m not a photojournalist. I’m not a documentary photographer. I feel awkward carrying a camera around in public, so I’d rather stay home and make my own worlds rather than go out in search of what I’m interested in.”

“Unnatural History: The Odd and Remarkable Dioramas of Lori Nix”
April 19-Aug. 2
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
1900 Ben Franklin Pkwy.
Museum admission $13-$15, 215-299-1000

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