How Jane Kim Is Reviving the Art of the Museum Diorama
The conservation-minded science illustrator already has one of the most ambitious natural history murals under her belt, and she's just getting started
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Jane Kim was nearing the end of a science illustration internship at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2011—honing her ornithology drawing skills—when John Fitzpatrick, the lab’s director, showed her a blank 3,000-square-foot, four-story-high wall in the lab’s visitor center. “That wall has been screaming to be a mural since we moved in” eight years earlier, Fitzpatrick told Kim. He wanted to commission a mural that depicted a bird from every modern living family, plus many of the species from which they’d evolved—270 species in total.
Cornell Ornithology has a long history of working with distinguished natural history artists, and Fitzpatrick had floated the idea by some. But all had balked at the scope of the project. Kim did the math in her head and said yes almost immediately.
Two and a half years after starting the project, in December 2015, Kim capped off the lab’s centennial year by unveiling a natural history mural that stands as one of the largest and most ambitious ever created. It showcases on a map of the world a species from every modern bird family, including 12 new families that were discovered while Kim worked on it. Each creature is painted to scale, from a five-inch marvelous spatuletail hummingbird to a 30-foot Yutyrannus. And each is crafted with exacting scientific accuracy that would be challenging in a sketchbook.
Kim spent much of her time on a scaffolding setup, built so she could work on upper reaches of the wall. She often preferred to work through the night, when there were no distractions. “She’s been like Michelangelo, way up on that lift day after day,” Fitzpatrick says. “This has never been done before. I daresay this may never be done again.”
As a scientific illustrator, Kim, 34, is part of a niche set of artists who are bringing the centuries-old craft into the 21st century. For the most part, science illustration means drawing flora and fauna so accurately that the depictions can be used for reference. Charles Darwin did it, as did John James Audubon. Kim has taken this to the next level by moving the art out of sketchbooks and textbooks and onto massive exhibition-scale walls.
For an exhibit that opened at the National Aquarium in May, Kim created wall-spanning paper mosaics of three distinct coastal ecosystems. For an ongoing Kickstarter-funded project called Migrating Mural that Kim started in 2011, Kim paints migratory animals, like bighorn sheep, on buildings that look out onto their natural habitats. Each becomes part of a series of murals, set over hundreds of miles, that actually follows the species’ migratory path. The idea of the Migrating Mural, which pretty neatly describes Kim's overall mission, is to take science illustration out of museums and even closer to its original subjects.
Kim hopes that her approach brings new relevance to the educational art that inspired her, but is also widely considered antiquated today. Around the 1920s, visitors flocked to see taxidermied animals set before lifelike dioramas of their native habitat and fellow wildlife. It's thanks to these striking displays that the Hall of African Mammals became an archetypal image of the museum experience. But educational institutions are increasingly hesitant to dedicate permanent space to something as old-school as a diorama. Newsweek’s Max Kutner explained the “diorama dilemma” in an article published in August: “Some have supercharged their century-old displays with gaudy interactive and multimedia features. Others have left them alone and allowed them to fall into disrepair. The worst offenders have scrapped the old dioramas, pillaging them for parts and banishing their remains to storage or garbage dumps.”
“When I see people marveling at the mural like it’s a scientific illustration, asking questions, that for me is the best thing ever,” Jane Kim says.
The Wall of Birds, as Cornell dubbed the project, will remain a permanent fixture in the lab’s visitor center, which Fitzpatrick acknowledges is a rarity as museums plan to tear down displays and opt for showier and temporary projects. But it’s also a reminder that art remains one of the most visceral and beautiful ways to learn about science. “We wanted this to be a bold and permanent statement,” Fitzpatrick says. “That’s what the lab is. It’s a bold experiment and we’re in for the long haul.”
The lab is currently stitching together about 400 high-resolution photos of the Wall of Birds so that anybody can explore it online in great detail. But Kim says the best way to experience it is in person. “When I see people marveling at the mural like it’s a scientific illustration, asking questions, that for me is the best thing ever,” she says. When people take in the entire wall from afar, Kim hopes they see a bigger picture of birds’ stunning diversity, the remarkable work of evolution. The lab named the mural “From So Simple a Beginning,” pulled from a sentence in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that’s also a fitting parallel to Kim’s transformation of that huge, white wall. “…Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”