Tag Archives: museum diorama

The importance of the display case

The majority of dioramas that you’ll see at a model exhibition are uncovered. The scene is constructed on a flat base and there is no case over it. 

Museum dioramas, on the other hand, are usually covered. The primary reason for this is naturally to prevent damage to the work, but there are other benefits as well. A well executed display case can add an extra dimension to the exhibit being displayed. These lighthouse exhibits in the Estonian Maritime Museum are a good example.

Rather than covering the lighthouses with standard rectangular cases, custom made cylindrical glass cases were used. These conform much better to the shape of the subject. The exhibits are carefully lit from below to minimize distracting reflections that can sometimes be a problem with curved glass. These cases were undoubtedly more expensive than plain rectangular cases would have been, but the aesthetic payoff is undeniable. 

If you haven’t yet tried covering your diorama with a display case, consider it for your next project. It will help give your finished scene that museum look. 

-Ivar 

Steaming into new territory

This innovative diorama of a cargo steamer, on display at the Estonian Maritime Museum, combines a 3D cutaway model with a transparent OLED display. The display has been programmed to show animation of smoke billowing out of the smokestack, sailors on deck, and even rats running around!

This is an imaginative solution to the age-old problem of how to animate atmospheric effects and figures in a diorama. These effects are often difficult and impractical to do in three dimensions. By adding a 2D ‘layer’ in front of the scene, specialist model makers Premier Ship Models were able to successfully add the desired effects.

The diorama is similar to a forced perspective piece in the sense that it must be viewed head-on so the animated OLED effects line up with the physical model. If you move to the side, the 2D and 3D layers diverge and the illusion is weakened. 

Cargo steamers first appeared in Estonia between 1850 and 1860. They represented a major technological breakthrough and revolutionized passenger and freight transportation around the world. The model showcased here is based on a steamer called the Keyingham.

-Ivar

Guess the scale of this diorama

This diorama of a 105mm howitzer framed by two jeeps and a C-47B appears very finely detailed. The figures in particular are impressive. And look at that beautifully done panel wash on the aircraft. Can you guess the scale? There’s a clue on the left side of the photo.

The diorama is part of the permanent collection at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels, Belgium. It looks like a wartime scene, but the plaque informs us that the Belgian Air Force utilized the C-47B between 1947 and 1976. The C-47B is the military version of the venerable DC-3, which revolutionized air travel after its first flight in 1935. The C-47B was used to transport freight and troops, and even tow gliders. Including all variants, over 16,000 units of the aircraft were built. 

I had the pleasure of taking a DC-3 flight from Boston to Provincetown, on the east coast of the US, many years ago. It was without a doubt the loudest aircraft I’ve ever flown in! I remember how close the arc of the propeller blades came to the fuselage.

Some people are nervous about flying in prop planes, but the DC-3 is one of the safest aircraft you could ever fly in. With its generous wing area and relatively light weight, it remains flyable even in the event of both engines failing. The plane’s impressive glide ratio means that a pilot can land it unpowered with no trouble at all. Even better, the DC-3 didn’t have a single computer on board, so bad software was never an issue. Just don’t forget to bring your earplugs.

The diorama is full scale . . . if you look closely, the handrail of the second floor walkway is just visible in the bottom left corner of the photo. 

For tips on how to optimize the visual impact of your work, see my book Diorama Design. It’s available on Amazon and Apple Books.

-Ivar

A 1:1 scale diorama at Autoworld Brussels

An inventive display in Belgium’s largest auto museum showcases three great racing cars of a bygone era: a 1971 Bizzarrini AMX / 3 Spyder, a 1954 Jaguar D-Type, and a 1953 Porsche 550 Spyder. It breaks convention with most automotive museums, which simply line up row after row of cars and provide nothing more than a small plaque with a few brief details about each vehicle. 

This full scale diorama invites us to go back in time to the golden age of car racing. Peer into the shadows behind the cars, and see the specialized tools mechanics used to keep these machines in fine tune. Look up and see the crowds eagerly waiting for the cars to come screaming around the bend on their next lap. This is a perfect example of how a diorama can breathe life into its subjects. These cars are no longer just three random vehicles, but stars in a show. 

For tips on how to optimize the visual impact of your work, see my book Diorama Design. It’s available on Amazon and Apple Books.

-Ivar

How many people build dioramas?

When assessing the popularity of an art form, we can consider the following:
· How many well-known artists are there
· How big a market is there for buyers and sellers
· How strong of an online presence is there (websites, discussion boards, etc.)
· How often is it in the news

It’s pretty obvious that based on these criteria, the popularity of dioramas is very limited. Most people who build dioramas usually start out as scale modellers, a niche group itself. This means that diorama artists are a niche of a niche!

If we look at a more commonly practised art form, like photography, most people with a passing interest in art would be able to name at least one famous photographer. Ditto for sculpture or painting. But what about dioramas? I’ve been building dioramas for many years, and the only diorama artist I can name off the bat is Sheperd Paine. And I know of him because of his book on dioramas, not his actual works.

But what about special effects technicians who work in film and television, you say? If you’re a science fiction aficionado, chances are you’ve heard of names like Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Brian Johnson and Derek Meddings. Well, they’re all famous artists, but they create miniature sets, not dioramas. A miniature set is usually much larger than a diorama, because it’s optimized for filming. And because it’s specifically designed to be filmed, it only has to look good from the angle of the camera. A diorama, on the other hand, is open to scrutiny from many angles. Another differentiator is that miniature film sets can be digitally enhanced through computer generated effects in post-production, whereas dioramas don’t have this luxury.

Brian Johnson, who’s known for his superb work on Space: 1999, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, and many other high profile projects, once remarked that he knew special effects supervisors who created works of art on their sets, but none of it showed up in the final shot. He added candidly, “with all that smoke swirling about the place, you can get away with murder!” His comment shows that unlike some other effects artists, he fully understood the difference between miniature sets and dioramas.

You might expect that artists who create dioramas for museums would be well known (and this would be a reasonable expectation). In a recent post, I discussed Museo de la Miniatura in Guayaquil, Ecuador. When I toured the museum, I asked several people for the name of the artist who created the dioramas. No-one was able to answer my question. Nor could I find the artist mentioned anywhere in the museum or on its website, despite the fact that every exhibit in the museum was created by this artist!

So it seems that museums don’t feel that the artists who created dioramas for them should receive credit or publicity for their work. And to make matters worse, diorama artists, unlike painters, don’t usually sign their name on their finished works. Diorama artists are the unsung (not to mention uncredited and unpublicized) artists of the art world.

The lack of well-known diorama artists is perhaps the greatest impediment to the popularity of the art, because artists benefit from other artists who inspire them. Photographers can aspire to the greatness achieved by Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Painters, to Monet or Van Gogh. And sculptors, to Rodin or Michelangelo. But diorama artists have no such names to aspire to.

Perhaps because there are no well-known diorama artists, dioramas are rarely featured in art galleries. I’ve seen a few, but they tend to be few and far between.

Returning to the original question of how many people build dioramas, it’s clear that the numbers are extremely small. There are no famous diorama artists. Dioramas have a tiny web presence, are rarely bought, sold, or exhibited in galleries, and are hardly ever newsworthy.

Is this a problem? Not if you’re a sincere artist. By this I mean someone who does what they do because they love doing it, not because they want external validation. Popularity and recognition are nice, but they are chance by-products of the creative process and nothing more. The act of creating a work of art, with all its frustrations, joys, disappointments and successes, is what engages us first and foremost. We create art because we’re compelled to. So if you love building dioramas, that in itself is enough.

-Ivar