n 1931, Brooke Dolan II organized an expedition to the base of the Himalayas in China and Tibet to collect Asian animals for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (since renamed the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University). They brought back more than a thousand specimens, including the takin that were installed in one of the museum’s dioramas in 1935. Three years later, Western lowland gorillas collected by the George Vanderbilt expedition to what is now the Central African Republic were sealed behind glass in their own diorama.
The two dioramas — like most of the 36 others in the museum — were not touched by human hands for decades after.
That changed earlier this year, when glaziers lifted off the glass window to begin a renovation process.
The Academy allowed an Inquirer and Daily News staff photographer to go behind-the-scenes as it embarked on the months-long historic renovation of two classic 1930s dioramas.
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Over those nine decades, the colors of the animals' pelts faded, branches drooped, backdrop paintings peeled and cracked, and layers of dust built up. Academy staff conservators and outside experts cleaned and restored everything inside — the animals, leaves, trees, and even the “wet” rocks on the floor. The rejuvenated dioramas also got new lighting, and updated interpretive panels will soon be installed.
April 16, 2018: Academy conservators photograph the Western lowland gorillas and the exhibit for continuity before the creatures are removed from their diorama. They also use different wavelength lighting to find imperfections and damage on the gorillas to be repaired.
April 18, 2018: Conservators ready the takin for removal. In the 1930s, museum artists used strong chemicals to keep the dioramas pest-free and looking fresh. Once the glass was removed and the area inside was to be disturbed, the hallway was sealed so toxic elements could not enter the museum. Workers were kept safe with protective suits, gloves, and masks.
April 18, 2018: Conservators working on the nearby takin diorama are reflected in the glass of another diorama — the giant pandas, which were also collected on the same Dolan expedition to the Himalayas that secured the takin.
April 18, 2018: Working near the Serengeti Plain diorama in the African Hall, the gorillas are inspected before they are moved off-site for restoration.
May 9, 2018: Prepped for travel, the gorillas and takin leave the Academy to be restored at the New Jersey studio of Wildlife Preservations.
Aug. 8, 2018. One of the Academy's yet-to-be restored gorillas and a restored takin wait in the Wildlife Preservations studio.
Aug. 8, 2018. Master taxidermist George Dante works on the lips of one of the Academy's gorillas.
Aug. 28, 2018: After having been restored by experts off-site, gorillas and takin spend the weekend in the Academy's library (also under renovation), waiting to be returned to their dioramas.
Sept. 10, 2018: A gorilla is in the diorama after restoration. Taxidermists intentionally left the back of the animal — hidden to visitors — untouched and as they found it, so future conservators could know how the work was done in the 1930s.
Sept. 10, 2018: Protective plastic sheeting used during the renovation is removed from the gorilla diorama.