Sunday 31 May 2015

Look closer

At work this week we started resurrecting some diorama removed five years ago from the Petone Settlers Museum, including a scene of tree felling used to tell a story about deforestation in the Hutt Valley floor (it strikes me that this melted face is a bit of an issue).

Dioramas are intriguing. I think it's the distillation and abstraction that they offer. Their three-dimensional nature means it takes more time for your eye to move around, discovering all the details (more like our experience of the real world than a flat picture) and at the same time the reduction of detail leaves room for the imagination and gives the experience aesthetic rather than realistic (also, when you take a photo of a diorama it immediately looks like you've flicked on the tilt shift tool).

I guess then I was primed for this post from Russell Davies about his visit to the Wellcome Collection's Forensics show. There's a real irony that his main observation of an exhibition that's all about close looking was that "everything was too dark and too small for an old person like me to read. I know they have to keep things dark to preserve the documents but I don't understand why they can't blow things up and stick them alongside the originals."

I always enjoy Davies short observations on attending exhibitions because he brings the lens of user experience design from the web to the gallery setting - and because he has a deep visual affinity. The main thing I took out of this post though was his pointer to the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, a set of 18 incredibly detailed diorama made by Frances Glessner Lee as an aid for teaching the techniques of crime scene investigation in the 1940s. The diorama are displayed in the building that houses the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, and have been more recently closely documented by the photographer Corinne May Botz.

Corinne May Botz, Unpapered bedroom, from the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths 
One of my favourite podcasts, 99% Invisible, has just done a show in the dioramas. Actually, it's about much more than the diorama, fascinating as they are: the story is really about Lee, the child of a wealthy family who, when she came into her independence, took her interest in crime scene investigations and turned it into a mission to better educate the police force and change the way unexplained deaths are approached.    

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