Last summer we stumbled upon an unlikely relic, the Tado Ivanausko Zoologijos museum in Kaunas Lithuania. Here is a splendidly preserved time capsule of a natural history museum. It seemed like the entire animal kingdom in taxidermy, hidden away in a cabinet of curiosities that felt like it had not been opened since the Iron Curtain fell. We were practically the only people in the place. It was thrilling.

Thrilling in much the same way that New York’s American Museum of Natural History, Musee de la Chasse et de La Nature in Paris, or the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford are. All of it to scale, real animals and objects with the immediacy of something you can reach out and touch. The glass cases are works of art, still lives rendered in three dimensions. Stepping in front of the the splendid wildlife dioramas feels like there’s only a pane of glass separating you from close encounters in distant lands. It’s almost like teleportation. The best of the exhibits we saw in Kaunas made start in surprise, or the hair stand on end as these inanimate scenes triggered some primordial fight or flight reflex. We provided the animation ourselves! 

Kakato close up

Dioramas are decidedly old school in a digital age. It’s perhaps that much more surprising then that they can prompt such a visceral response in young viewers accustomed to learning from screens. There’s something particularly enchanting about the verisimilitude and the mesmerising trompe-l’oieil techniques that never tires. So it was encouraging to discover that it’s not a dying art after all. 

Jane Kim and Raptor

Science illustration, in the manner of Charles Darwin and John James Audubon, is alive an well. Jane Kim is one such practitioner, and having completed a marvellous mural of migratory animals, she hopes that her approach will bring new relevance to the educational art that inspired her, but is also widely considered antiquated today. Many museums are racing to deploy interactive digital displays to draw visitors. When the initial ‘wow effect wears off, will these have the same lasting impact as witnessing the whale in the Hall of Ocean Life in New York? Like the CGI renderings in Hollywood’s Night at the Museum, these may end up looking more like a travesty of the reality they seek to represent. 

Feathered Close UP

Whatever the medium, here’s to the pursuit of wonder. “…Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” From Aristotle’s early explorations, through Darwin’s drawings, the glass flowers of Blashka & Son, and even the art of Walton Ford, close observation of the natural world is a revelation. That’s worth seeking out in any museum setting. Or better yet, get out into the wild. It is one of a kind, and it is completely analog.