15 June 2014

An Exhibit for the Ages: 100 Years of the Laysan Cyclorama

Laysan Cyclorama
Courtesy International Panorama Council
Exactly 100 year sago, on June 15th, 1914, the University of Iowa opened a new exhibit: a cyclorama of the wildlife of Laysan, an atoll at the tail end of the Hawaiian Islands and, at that time, a major seabird rookery.  Many other displays have come and gone at the UI Museum of Natural History, some of which - most notably Rusty the Giant Sloth - have replaced the Laysan albatrosses and frigatebirds as the public "faces" of the museum, but the centenarian exhibit remains the most remarkable of the bunch.  There are probably as many ideas about what makes a great natural history exhibit out there as there are natural historians and museologists, but in my estimation there are five criteria for a really outstanding display, and the Laysan Cyclorama meets each and every one.

  • Historically interesting - The Laysan Cyclorama really got its start in 1902, when UIMNH director Charles Nutting visited the island.  He was enchanted by the nesting birds he saw there and in 1911 he sent taxidermist Homer Dill on an expedition to Laysan (an expedition that was, delightfully, funded in part by proceeds from a skit put on by the football team).  When the specimens collected in 1911 were put on display three years later, the cyclorama became the first exhibit in the museum to depict an entire ecosystem.  This may not sound terribly remarkable, but given that Carl Akeley had only just introduced the concept of creating dioramas that represented ecological snapshots rather than simply displaying individual animals in glass cases, the Laysan Cyclorama was, in fact, part of the leading edge of a major change in the way natural history exhibits were designed.
  • Scientifically important - When the UIMNH expedition visited Laysan in 1911, it was already a dying ecosystem.  The introduction of rabbits to the island in 1903 wreaked havoc on the native plant, insect, and bird life.  Most severely affected were the endemic species that had depended on the vegetation that was decimated by the rabbits.  Three species - the Laysan rail, millerbird, and honeycreeper - went extinct and two - the Laysan finch and duck - survived but remain endangered to the present day.  Specimens of these species on display in the cyclorama and preserved in the collections of the UIMNH and a handful of other museums are the last remaining evidence of the extinct birds and a source of valuable information about the surviving taxa.
  • Educationally effective - The gorgeous, narrow, wood-panelled passageway that leads into the cyclorama leaves little doubt as to the vintage of the exhibit, but the display was ahead of its time in its efforts to teach visitors about the effects of human activity on island ecosystems.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about about the Laysan Cyclorama is that age has made it an even more valuable educational tool.  Over the course of the intervening century, the last remaining rabbits have been extirpated from Laysan, some native species have begun to recover, and the island has become a natural laboratory for studying the ecology of island ecosystems.  Instead of a window into a lost world, then, the cyclorama represents a look at the beginning of an ecological epic that continues to unfold today.  The modern signage in the exhibit does a nice job showing how this story has developed since 1914 and very effectively demonstrates that ecosystems are not static and that time is an important variable in biology (a lesson near and dear to my heart as a paleontologist).
  • Aesthetically pleasing - A trend in modern biodiversity exhibits is to develop large, walk-through environments rather than classic "window on the world" dioramas (and lest you all think I'm being characteristically curmudgeonly, I think this is generally a trend for the better).  The cyclorama format of the Laysan exhibit anticipates the immersive exhibits of today, but it also retains the artistry and almost obsessive attention to detail that characterize the great dioramas of the early 20th Century.  Dill didn't just bring back bird specimens from his expedition: he brought back sand from Laysan's beaches and rocks, which would literally form the groundwork of the exhibit.  The authenticity of the cyclorama is augmented by the background mural by Charles Corwin, who was not only a talented painter but also a member of the 1911 expedition.  The end product is not only very authentic, but extremely detailed (if you ever have a chance to visit, see if you can pick out the nesting sea turtle) and beautiful to look at.  The intent of the exhibit was to make visitors to feel as though they'd been transported to Laysan, and the fact that it conveys that feeling even today is a testament to how well the designers succeeded.
  • Unique - Other museums have dioramas depicting Pacific island rookeries (the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has a particularly impressive example), but both the cyclorama format and Laysan setting of the UIMNH exhibit make it unique.  Many natural history exhibits are repeated between museums, the best example being the "African watering hole" diorama pioneered by the aforementioned Carl Akeley in Chicago and New York and then repeated ad nauseum by museums across the globe; each iteration is impressive, but the sheer number of them makes each less remarkable than it would otherwise be.  The uniqueness of the Laysan Cyclorama makes it truly stand out.  Not only is the exhibit groundbreaking, important, and educational, but it's something that can only be seen in Iowa, and if you're ever in the area you should do yourself a favor and pay it a visit.
As mentioned above, everyone with an opinion on such things probably has a slightly different idea of what constitutes a great natural history exhibit, and I welcome peoples' comments on favorite displays and criteria for evaluating them.  However, regardless of how you judge exhibits, it's hard to imagine that anyone would find the Laysan Cyclorama to be anything less than remarkable.  So, join me in wishing a Happy 100th Birthday to an exhibit that was ahead of its time, that has told generations of Iowans an important ecological parable, and that looks as good today as it did a century ago!