“Bird’s Eye” Viewpoint

Close up of grasses painted in the Florida Everglades diorama at the Peabody Museum

My friend and fellow sculptor, Bob Taplin visited me in the exhibit Saturday.  Bob has done some forced perspective relief sculpting and recently had an exhibit at MassMoca of several intriguing miniature dioramas using Dante’s Inferno as a starting point.  He has grappled with odd perspectives and was a great help analyzing the background painting with me.  I started by showing him the grass conundrum.  We took a walk up to the Florida Everglades diorama to see another Wilson group with tall grasses.  This was instructive because the Fl. Everglades has the tall grasses painted life size and they come up just under the horizon all the way into the distance.  The viewpoint is almost at water level, right down with the viewer’s feet muddy in the marsh, .  This confirms that the viewpoint in the painted background in Point Pelee is from a high point looking down because the grasses would be painted the same way as the Everglades painting if we were on the same level as them.

But then Bob had a very interesting observation.  With the sand dune at waist level, the only way the horizon line could be where it is at 62″ off the ground, the viewer would have to be SITTING or KNEELING in the dunes.  We went upstairs again and I realized that all the other dioramas are created such that the viewer has the illusion that one could step right into the diorama.  The opening of the window starts a little over a foot off the ground and the eye level is at a normal height to the viewer to enhance this illusion.   In the Point Pelee diorama, the viewing window will start at about 36″, very different than most other dioramas.

The "visible" artist! taken show the relationship of the viewer to the landscape in the Pt. Pelee diorama.

The only other dioramas with this kind of elevated window that I know of is in the American Museum in New York in the Small Mammal dioramas.  I remember that the effect in that hall is that you are in a very intimate relationship with the animals.  You are right down on your hands and knees in the dirt with them (or sand in our case).  This is brilliant diorama planning to bring the focus down onto the smaller mammals and birds.

I received this update from Steve Quinn at the AMNH on March 25th:

Hi Mike,

The height of the viewing windows for the groups here at AMNH are pretty
variable. I just did a quick run about to give you some accurate numbers.

Akeley Hall of African Mammals – all windows start at 18″ – most of the
group have their habitats constructed on the existing floor level (same
level as the public is standing on) but some have the habitat built down
below floor grade (mountain gorilla, waterhole, upper nile, colobus, etc.).
The horizon is still plotted at 62″ or 63″ but the lower habitat creates
more of a birds eye view (colobus, waterhole) or a drop in elevation
(gorilla,nile). I think it’s nice when you have the option of going below
floor grade in the foreground when your designing from scratch.

Small Mammal Corridor – start at 34″ ( Pine Marten, ermine, flying
squirrel, etc.) and 24″ (Badger, Wolverine, etc.)

North American Mammals – all large groups start at 18″ (wapiti, grizzly,
bison, jaquar, coyote, etc.) and the smaller group in the side corridors
(raccoon, mountain beaver, jackrabbit, ringtail,etc.) start at 30″. All
horizons at 62″ off the floor.

Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds – all groups start at 30″. All horizons
plotted at approx. 62 (Jaques)

So, the heights are variable, but the larger groups are like ours here at the Peabody, starting about 18″ off the ground.  I forgot that the windows of the corridor dioramas had higher levels.  So this isn’t as unusual as I first thought it to be.  But interesting nonetheless!

Explore posts in the same categories: Diorama History, Preparing the Foreground

2 Comments on ““Bird’s Eye” Viewpoint”

  1. Sean Murtha Says:


    This is an issue I’ve wondered about, as in many of the dioramas I’ve done (except the permanent ones in Ocean Life) the foreground was significantly higher than the floor– including the one at Earthplace in Westport where I used Wilson’s gridding methods (both on the walls and with the photos). In that particular case I wondered, when photographing the site, should I put the camera at eye-level, or should I put it at the height above the ground that the eye-level in the diorama would be above the foreground? In other words, if eye-level is 62″ and the diorama foreground is 30″ off the floor, should I set the tripod at 62″, or 32″, above the ground? What I did was to split the difference, and since I altered the immediate foreground of the scene anyway, I fudged the perspective at the tie-in. I’m sure Wilson never would have done this. When Wilson did his studies for the small mammals dioramas, did he set his camera at a low height? And did he do his on-site color-studies from a sitting position?


    • I know Wilson never sat while painting and I also know he always set the camera at 62″. The height of the diorama seemed to not concern him. I just scanned a photo from the Boston Museum of Science showing him happily standing in front of a high foreground diorama (maybe 24-28″ at the right wing) All of the Boston dioramas are about the same height. I now know that the foreground preparator has to use smaller versions of the plants to make it work and also has to juggle this against the full-size animals and birds. Much more sleight-of-hand than I realized. Thankfully our eyes compensate-at least I think they do. I worry about the subtle acknowledgement of artificiality that happens with an ungridded background taking place with miniature foreground flora.

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