Dyche Hall towers above Jayhawk Boulevard on the KU campus in Lawrence, Kansas. The building houses the Natural History Museum and on most spring days, groups of elementary school students arrive to tour the exhibits. At the center of the collection is the Panorama, a 360-degree pageant of wildlife from the nine climate zones of the Western Hemisphere.
“The Panorama is one of America’s cultural treasures,” said Museum director Leonard Krishtalka. “In 1893, it brought Kansas to the world in the Columbian Exposition and presented a panoply of nature such as the public had never seen before in scope and in expanse. And what’s more, the public didn’t have to go into nature to see it. When the
World’s Fair was over in 1893, and it came back to Kansas, it brought the world back to Kansas. You walk into this building. You walk over to the panorama. You are awed by the magic of its size, and you are awed by the magic of suddenly being transported to a different place on earth. From the North Pole to the tropical forest, through the Great Plains, to the Rocky Mountains.”
When the Panorama first opened, the exhibit was groundbreaking in the way it displayed animals in family groupings with a sense of drama not common in scientific display. Conservator Ron Harvey was recently in Lawrence to assess the condition of the mounts. Harvey says that the 8,000 square foot exhibit is one of the oldest and most unique panoramas in the world.
“If you think of panoramas, panoramas from that 1893 period, there’s two in the world that I know of,” Ron Harvey, a conservationist with Lincolnville, Maine-based Tuckerbrook Conservation LLC said. “One is in The Biology Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, and it’s about 6,200 square feet, and the other one is right here and this is about 8,000 square feet. So we have the best example of the most historic panorama in the United States right here in Lawrence, Kansas. ”
After 120 years of exposure to light and humidity, the animals behind the glass are in dire need of restoration. So far, the conservation project has raised more than $100,000 from donors to fund the assessment. But more will be needed for the next stage of renovation.
“The exhibit has been exposed to a lot of things over time, heat, humidity, lighting,” said Bruce Scherting Director of Exhibits. “All of these things take their toll. They are cumulative. They’re slow. They are not something that you would necessarily pick up on from one day to the next, but over time, they’ve all kind of taken their toll.”
Heavy metals used by early taxidermists are poisonous. So conservator Ron Harvey and his team wear hazmat suits as they gingerly step between the animals to document and lightly clean the mounts.
“We are primarily using a a very soft, natural fiber brush – it’s actually goat hair and using that to tease the dust off the surface and then using HEPA filter vacuum cleaners, pretty sophisticated vacuum cleaners, that capture the dirt,” Harvey said. “We know that there’s toxic materials in the interior of the mounts. Some of them have split. You’ve got hides which are organic. They are responsive to both changes in temperature and relative humidity. Certainly here and in Chicago, in it’s early days, there was no climate control.”
Taking control over the environment that houses the panorama will be essential to preserving it for the next 100 years. But first, the fragile specimens on display must be stabilized.
“I think talking about it’s age and and talking about the level of deterioration in terms of, you know, fading, I don’t think that these original, historic mounts need to be darkened or dyed or introducing a chemical or a toning system that’s going to make them look new again,” said Harvey. “I think it’s more important to think of them as historic and we’re seeing their later years in their life and they’re still serving their purpose. They’re still telling a story.”
Author Bill Sharp co-wrote “The Dashing Kansan,” a biography of Lewis Lindsay Dyche, the 19th century naturalist and taxidermist behind the Panorama’s creation. For Sharp, one story hits close to home.
“Perhaps notable, most notable, of the university’s early collections were the bison, which were collected by an expedition of the Smithsonian Institution in 1886, said Bill Sharp. “Dyche was not a member of that expedition, but one of his students William Harvey Brown was, and brought back two examples of wild American bison for the university to mount. And, to me, those are really the heart of the collection, and what the collection was about, because the Smithsonian expedition that collected them truly believed that the bison were not survive perhaps another generation in the wild.”
Krishtalka says Dyche was an observer of nature and that he was alert to the changing world around him. The work Dyche left behind reveals a great deal about him.
“Even when Lewis Lyndsey Dyche was alive he realized from his multiple expeditions, that human activity was starting to take its toll on the plants and animals of the planet,” Krishtalka said. “He was a showman, he was a naturalist. He was a fantastic explorer. And he used his travels and the stories about his travels in lectures all around the country with wonderful slideshows to not only advertise the beauty and awesomeness of nature, but that it was precious and needed to be preserved.”
Harvey credits early naturalists like Dyche and exhibits like the Panorama with the beginnings of the conservation movement in the United Sates.
“If you think of the Panorama as being the state of the art in terms of a way of educating and providing information to the public, realize one of Dyche’s responsibilities in creating the Panorama for the Exposition was that the species were being slaughtered,” Harvey said. “You know, that people were going out and mowing them down, you know, shooting bison from railroad cars, not really thinking about the fact that you are diminishing the numbers and at some point you are going to be threatening the species.”
For Krishtalka, this exhibit is a snapshot of a world that Lewis Lindsay Dyche wanted to preserve.
“When he created the panorama, I would imagine part of his motivation was not only to bring this fantastic display of nature to an enormous public,” said Krishtalka. “Twenty thousand visitors a day in the Columbian Exposition. But also to heighten their sensitivities. That if nature was so precious, and nature was so awesome, therefore it needed to be stewarded and conserved for the future. And, in many ways there is a nice parallel here. We today feel it’s our duty here to preserve and conserve and ensure the survival of this panorama and the nature it represents into the future.”