Diorama Drama: The "Bumpus-Dean Controversy" at the American Museum of Natural History

By Kimiko Matsumura

Bashford Dean

Bashford Dean

In 1910, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) generated a small public controversy when a conflict between Dr. Bashford Dean, head curator of the department of ichthyology, and museum director Dr. Hermon Bumpus resulted in the resignation of the former and a six-month leave of absence for the latter. The New York Times reported on the shake-up: “Clash Upsets American Museum,” the paper announced in an October headline. “They split over policy.”[1] A few weeks later, a new article purported to reveal the true reason why the two men quarreled: “Prof. Dean believed that the department exhibit should be arranged so as to facilitate scientific study. Director Bumpus had quite another view about the matter[...] He thought that each specimen should be catalogued in such a manner that school children could read and understand, and that wherever possible the specimens should be arranged in surroundings which should correspond to their natural environment. In other words, the popular idea of museum work was exemplified in Director Bumpus; the scientific idea in Prof. Dean.”[2]

Hermon Bumpus

Hermon Bumpus

Stepping inside the museum today, it is obvious whose vision ultimately succeeded. School children and families continue to gather around the mid-century dioramas that depict animal habitats, a crown jewel of the American Museum’s collection whose illusionistic representation of specimens and environments behind large panes of glass continues to enthrall new generations of New Yorkers with every passing decade. Nevertheless, as Bumpus and Dean’s disagreement shows, these exhibits were once controversial propositions that forced museum officials to ask what is the role of the natural history museum? Who is its target audience? And toward these ends, how should nature be represented? The answers would change the character of natural history display in America and foster new relationships to nature in the first half of the 20th century.

The disagreement between Bumpus and Dean emerged as a consequence of shifting target audiences for natural history museums. As these institutions pivoted to serve the general public rather than the scientific community in the late 19th century, the institutional requirements for exhibits also needed to change. Dean’s so-called “scientific approach” to natural history display was likely consistent with older museum practices that exhibited specimens for specialists. Often extensions of other scientific institutions, like universities or academies, 19th century natural history museums collected specimens to illustrate physiological similarities and differences both between individual specimens and across species in order to teach naturalists how to recognize and categorize various flora and fauna (below).[3] When mounted, these specimens were presented as individuals and usually placed in neutral poses. The scientist could then observe the animal from all sides to note color and composition and to conduct measurements, if desired. These specimens were generally better than no specimens at all, but they had major faults. Single mounts failed to indicate behavior or environment, limiting observations to pure physiology. Furthermore, preservation processes were inconsistent and often unsuccessful, creating misshapen or discolored specimens that eventually crumbled or corrupted if their chemical mixture was too harsh or if the pesticide content was insufficient.[4] As a result, specimens were often unreliable and required many examples in order to distinguish a true type, favoring the specialists who could dedicate themselves to the extensive study required to recognize characteristics.

“Birds Found Within 50 Miles of New York City, [Hall of New York City Birds, 1894-1936],” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/47767.

“Birds Found Within 50 Miles of New York City, [Hall of New York City Birds, 1894-1936],” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/47767.

The American approach to natural history display had begun to shift to a more naturalistic representation of animals and environments around the turn of the century in response to a new imperative for public education and improved taxidermy techniques. George Brown Goode at the US National Museum (now more commonly referred to as the Smithsonian) spearheaded a movement his peers called the New Museum Idea, which sought to display ideas rather than objects for a general audience. Goode’s passion for education quickly spread to other American institutions.[5] Around the same time, taxidermists developed better chemicals and new sculpted armatures, resulting in longer lasting specimens that could be modeled into life-like poses. Taxidermists around the world then used these techniques to create more naturalistic mounts by grouping like specimens together and introducing foliage and background paintings to give the viewer a more holistic sense of the animal’s life.[6]

Despite this global interest, the habitat diorama was far more successful in the United States than almost anywhere else in the world, and the American Museum of Natural History was at the vanguard of these new display practices.[7] Beginning in the 1880s, the institution began to direct more funding to programs and exhibits that attracted the public, bringing popular taxidermy methods into their halls and blurring the line between education and entertainment.[8] Early AMNH explorations of the diorama form ranged from free-standing specimens placed in front of landscape paintings to more holistic blends of animals and environments set in glass vitrines or rectangular niches (below, left). Eventually, the mature habitat group format emerged, combining taxidermied animals and casts or reproductions of foliage in curved, recessed spaces (below, right). Painted backgrounds of site-specific landscape merged with the three-dimensional foreground to create an illusion of expansive space recessing into the distance.

Detail from “Duck Hawk Group, (Falco peregrinus anatum), depicting Hope Mountain, Upper Nyack, New York[1878-1900],” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/25198.

Detail from “Duck Hawk Group, (Falco peregrinus anatum), depicting Hope Mountain, Upper Nyack, New York[1878-1900],” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/25198.

“Osborn caribou (Grant's caribou or Plains deer), diorama, Sandslake region, Alaskan Peninsula, Hall of North American Mammals,” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/40752.

“Osborn caribou (Grant's caribou or Plains deer), diorama, Sandslake region, Alaskan Peninsula, Hall of North American Mammals,” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/40752.

The AMNH distinguished their displays through their attention to naturalistic detail. Museum scientists and sponsors collected specimens during scientific expeditions and took fastidious measurements of animals and environments, sending back not only the skins and bones of their valuable creatures but also samples of soil, rock, and foliage from the place the animal was shot. At the same time, artists sketched vegetation and painted panoramic landscapes of the animal’s native habitats to serve as models for the backgrounds (below). Back at the museum, curators and preparators used these notes to try to recreate real world places at a specific time of the year with the utmost accuracy.

“Artists William R. Leigh and Arthur A. Jansson making studies for the Klipspringer Group, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, Lukenya Hills, Kenya, 1926-1927,” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/44535.

“Artists William R. Leigh and Arthur A. Jansson making studies for the Klipspringer Group, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, Lukenya Hills, Kenya, 1926-1927,” American Museum of Natural History Research Library | Digital Special Collections, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/44535.

By capturing the viewer’s attention and imagination, museum officials argued that the dioramas encouraged sustained looking that would in turn sharpen observation skills and reveal natural truths.[9] Yet, while the habitat dioramas may appear more true to nature than the isolated specimens that came before them, they too were subject to misconceptions. Though backgrounds were painted from life and animals were modeled to meet field observations, preparators still made curatorial decisions that favored ideal specimens, scenes, and seasons. Such curation has been linked to the values and ideologies of the institutions that prepare these scenes. For example, Donna Haraway, has argued that curatorial choices favoring mated pairs and family groups over harems or solitary species naturalize heteronormative family structures and gender roles.[10] While the displays appear effortlessly natural, their illusionism conceals their carefully calculated compositions and communicates an idea of nature as beautiful and wild, majestic and enduring.

The conflict between Dean and Bumpus may have been the first of its kind at the institution, but it was far from the last. As Victoria Cain has noted, the prioritization of the dioramas remained a controversial issue through the 1940s as the displays flourished and curators, artisans, and scientists negotiated the new scientific visual language and their own roles within the museum.[11] And yet, by this time the habitat dioramas had all but taken over the museum, largely because the exhibits were fundraising bonanzas. Wealthy New Yorkers who sponsored dioramas often participated in the hunting expeditions to collect the intended specimens and were sometimes honored by name underneath the final exhibit, such as in the case of the Hall of North American Mammals where patrons are identified in raised brass lettering to this day.[12]

In shifting their audience, the AMNH made nature the purview of the public, but it was a specific understanding of nature that prioritized vision and was defined by aesthetics. Picturesque scenes of untouched wilderness perpetuated ideas of timeless nature and encouraged viewers to think of the natural world as the categorical opposite of human urbanism, existing in a secluded elsewhere away from people. The very compositions of the displays themselves reinforced this relationship to the natural world. Bright colors and robust specimens in energetic poses paradoxically infused the frozen scenes with a sense of vitality. Preserved against the ravages of time, New Yorkers could visit the displays throughout their lives only to see the same animals in peak condition in a landscape of perpetual abundance. Additionally, it could be said that the changes in display culture at the AMNH restructured the viewer’s relationship to the exhibit. The glass panels forbid touch, silence sound, and stifle smell, reducing the viewer’s engagement with the diorama to the visual realm, isolating an ideal vantage point from which to observe the installation, and creating distance between the observer and the specimen. Perhaps most significantly, however, by privileging the aesthetic experience of the diorama, museum officials suggested that nature is defined by its aesthetic value, and it can be known and mastered through visual contact alone.

In regards to the so-called Bumpus-Dean Controversy, what was originally reported as a collision between exhibition practices may have actually been a collision of personalities. Bumpus was expected to return in December with full administrative powers, but he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin instead. In his biography of his father, Hermon Bumpus Jr. reasserts that Bumpus Sr. resigned due to conflicts with administration over exhibition and audience preferences, but Bumpus only left the AMNH after a special committee hearing of his grievances against President Henry Fairfield Osborn failed to resolve in his favor.[13] Regardless of the reason behind his departure, the conflict between popular and scientific display nevertheless remained a significant question that plagued the institution at this time. Ultimately, the accessible display method Bumpus advocated for was more than just an enticing way to engage and educate the public; it would also teach its viewers how to approach and understand the natural world by setting new visual parameters for “the natural” as a purely visual and aesthetic experience.


Kimiko Matsumura is a Doctoral Candidate in the Rutgers University Department of Art History.


[1] "Clash Upsets American Museum,” New York Times, October 24, 1910.

[2] "Bumpus Coming Back as Museum’s Head,” New York Times, November 15, 1910.

[3] Collections that catered to specialists were especially important in the 19th century as scientific studies began to professionalize. See Carla Yanni, Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

[4] Karen Wonders, “Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Uppsala University (1993), 25. See also William T. Hornaday, “Insect Pests and Poisoning” in Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting: A Complete Handbook for the Amateur Taxidermist, Collector, Osteologist, Museum Builder, Sportsman, and Traveler (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 339-45.

[5] Karen Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 12-13.

[6] Wonders, Habitat Dioramas, 110-11.

[7] Id., 9.

[8] George Sherwood, Free Nature Education by the American Museum of Natural History in Public Schools and Colleges: History and Status of Museum Instruction and its Extension to the Schools of Greater New York and Vicinity (New York: Miscellaneous Publications of the American Museum of Natural History, No. 13, 1920), 7-9.

[9] Museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn was particularly vocal about this connection. See Sherwood, Free Nature Education, 5-6, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Creative Education in School, College, University and Museum (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927).

[10] Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-36,” in Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989), 54-55.

[11] Victoria E. M. Cain, “The Art of Authority: Exhibits, Exhibit-Makers, and the Contest for Scientific Status in the American Museum of Natural History, 1920–1940,” Science in Context 24, no. 2 (2011): 216-17. See also “The Drama of the Diorama” in Rader and Cain, Life on Display, 51-90.

[12] Cain, “The Art of Authority,” 220-22.

[13] Hermon Carey Bumpus, Jr., Hermon Carey Bumpus: Yankee Naturalist. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1947), 71. “Dr. Bumpus is out of History Museum” New York Times, January 21, 1911. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/docview/97156950?accountid=13626.