Botany Hall

Dioramas in Context: Using Digital Display to Unveil the Cultural History and Artistic Development of the Hall of Botany at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History 

Project Co-Manager, with Colleen O’Reilly, PhD Student, Department of the History of Art and Architecture


In the Winter of 2016, Colleen and I ran into each other at an art opening. We got to chatting about our own research as we gazed at the photographs hanging on the walls, and realized that our interests overlapped in intriguing ways. As an information scientist, I study online exhibitions. I straddle disciplinary lines, engaging with art history and museum studies in addition to my home field. As an art historian, Colleen studies the history of photography and particularly images that are used for pedagogical purposes. Her research occurs at the intersection of art and science.

We’re both interested in the liminal space that exists between disciplines, genres, or “types.” Thanks to Colleen’s previous work with staff at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, she knew that Botany Hall presented an ideal venue for conducting research about hybrid objects that are neither scientific objects nor art objects, strictly speaking (see Colleen’s blog post from a year prior to the conception of this project).


phase 1: beginnings

April 2016: Nora Mattern, then a Postdoctoral Researcher at Pitt, was scheduled to teach a course on museum archives during the summer of 2016. As part of the course, Nora customarily asks students to conduct provenance research about objects in local collections. Colleen and I thought that one or two students in Nora’s course might be interested in contributing to our project as part of their provenance research. Nora agreed that this sounded like a promising opportunity!

January-March 2016: When we started working together on this project, Colleen and I articulated and organized our research goals within the framework of a mock grant proposal. This was a helpful exercise, even though we didn’t seek grant funding at that stage. From day one, we were committed to working collaboratively not only with one another but with other institutions in Pittsburgh. We benefited greatly from the expertise of Cynthia Morton, former associate curator and head of the section of botany at CMNH, and Erin Peters, Lecturer in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and Assistant Curator in the Carnegie Museums. Our initial proposal set forth the following impact summary:

This project will interrogate both the physical exhibition structure of Botany Hall and the implications of its translation into a digital exhibition space. Our research will explore how critical visual analysis occurs in natural history or science museums. We will also unpack the stylistic choices made by the important individuals, including curators, fabricators, and painters, whose work often goes uncredited within the context of a natural history museum. The prevalence of diorama display indicates the degree to which the modern era of exhibition design was characterized by an interest in knowing through seeing, and in the dynamic, aesthetic use of visual evidence. In a contemporary context, dioramas demonstrate how old modes of interpretation remain relevant and, in fact, impact the production of new modes of display. The dioramas of Botany Hall and its overall design are characterized by multiple layers of interpretation that are not fully conveyed to visitors. Our goal is to foster appreciation of diorama collections as historical, scientific and art objects.