I have encountered some new challenges as I continue with the renovation of the Peabody Museum’s stunning Shoreline habitat diorama. As you can see from the photographs, the foreground grasses are looking quite “tired”. These are 100% real clumps of grass collected back in the mid 1940’s. I believe the grass was soaked in glycerin by Ralph Morrill, the foreground artist, to keep them from drying out and getting too brittle. He then hung them bottom side up to dry, which initially helps to hold the grass upright. Green spray paint was applied since they would lose their color over time. There are three types of grasses here, each with unique problems to solve. There are the low-lying clumps of grass that look to me like they have been trampled by years of unsteady preparators entering the diorama to clean the inside of the glass and provide occasional maintenance. There are the spindly tall grasses topped with heavy seed heads that, over the years, have gravitated, top first, toward the ground. And lastly, there are clumps of sedges comprised of long arching blades of grass. The sedges seem like they are in the best shape of all of the grasses, but to me, they look less than robust, like they might be drooping too much.
Before going too far into the restoration of the grasses, it is important to consider the original conception of this area of the foreground. Albert Parr framed and innovated the ideas for the Connecticut dioramas during his directorship of the Peabody from 1938-1942. Parr was critical of the kinds of habitat dioramas he had seen in New York at the American Museum of Natural History in the Southern Asian Hall and the African Hall where all evidence of human impact on the environment was whitewashed away. Parr thought that any habitat displayed should have evidence of human occupation embedded into the presentation and into the educational curriculum and he designed the Connecticut Hall with that in mind. A note: Parr’s idea of depicting human impact was to become a widespread paradigm for museum displays across the US, the Peabody’s Connecticut Hall was the first exhibit hall of this type. As Patrick Sweeney, the botanist pondered the grasses in the Shoreline diorama, we noted that the grasses are species seen in disturbed environments such as a footpath. Indeed, there appears to be a path curving in front of the cattails and heading toward the pond in the background.
Parr’s philosophical context for how the foreground was designed makes my work more complicated. Patrick suggested that maybe I shouldn’t do anything to the “tired” looking grasses and leave them as if someone had just walked over them. This idea conflicts with my view that the diorama appears shabby. While it may be a realistic depiction of a degraded habitat, does it translate that way to the everyday viewer or does it diminish their appreciation of a beautiful Connecticut coastline? When Parr became director of the American Museum of Natural History, he had a beer can dropped in the foreground of the Desert diorama. Again, this was injecting realism at a base level into a pristine environment. The beer can became a beacon for educators to discuss issues of litter and pollution, but it also looked like the foreground artist might have left behind contraband from a clandestine liquid lunch. The offensive beer can was removed.
In lieu of making too big a deal of this, I made a decision to try to remediate the shabby look. I figured that without labeling, most visitors would miss the nuance intended by the “tired” grasses. I make a lot of these decisions as I work on the Peabody dioramas and on the one hand, I always try to bring the scientific staff into the mix to make sure the science is correct, but in aesthetic questions such as this, I make my own informed guess at what would look the best.
To start, I chose to work on the tall drooping grasses (Latin name?) because they stood out as most in need of help. These fallen grasses almost completely obscured some of the members of the family of black ducks in the far right corner. When I entered the diorama, I found that some of the grasses were laying on top of the taxidermy mounts indicating the extent of their droopiness. I tried placing thin, stiff spring wire into the clumps to prop up fallen grass stems. These wires disappeared into the grasses and worked to some extent to hold up the existing grass. I also used wire “lassos” to hold groups of grasses to the upright wires. This lassos proved less effective as the wire holds groups of grasses unnaturally upright. I talked over these results with my assistant, Stefan Hurlburt, and he pointed out that the grasses have hollow stems and maybe we could run the spring wires up into the body of the grasses. Extra clumps of the long stem grasses have been in a box in storage since the 1940’s so we could run the spring wire into these grasses rather than remove the ones in the diorama. Stefan cut each individual grass off the clumps so he could get to the inside of the stems. The diameter of the spring wire I had was too large to fit, but I ordered thinner wire in 3’ straight lengths relieving the task of straightening coiled wire. Stefan patiently inserted this wire into the grass stems high enough so that the grasses should stay upright and be able to prop up other droopers. They are all lined up ready to be installed.
Stefan and I removed most of the small grass clumps from the diorama and brought them back to my lab to work on. I made a decision to add new blades of grass that were sliced out of thin strips of paper and painted green. Stefan spent a lot of time gluing insect pins to the paper blades and inserting them into the clumps.
I liked the way they perked up the grass clumps. We got quite a ways down this road before I remembered that even the restoration of grasses should have curatorial input. And I’m glad I did because Patrick Sweeney came by, looked at our restoration work, and gave it a resounding thumbs down! He wasn’t exactly sure what type of grass we were working with, but he was almost positive that they would not have had flat blades of grass like the kind Stefan was putting into the clumps. Luckily, the paper grasses were only held in place by the insect pins and were easily removable with no damage to the clumps Patrick thinks the form of the new grass will probably be rolled or conduplicate, though he will let us know for sure once he researches it.
Finally, our attention was directed to the sedges. Stefan did some research into what we might be able to find commercially. We had a sample that looked good sent to us. The grasses are made from a PVC and were a very good match. Stefan cut off individual grasses from the larger bundle and glued spring wire 5”-6” up the blade of grass. Stefan mixed up a more yellowish green and repainted them to match the diorama’s specimens. Since this looked like it was going to work, we asked to have three more bundles sent and were told there was a $250 minimum order which would be more like three cases of grass bundles, so that ended that. Our next choice will be to harvest some of the grass from the diorama, glue spring wire to the blades and reinstall them into the sedges.