The Civic Museum of Natural History in Milan, which I visited last month, contains a magnificent collection of dioramas.
The museum was badly damaged during WWII, so the oldest of them dates back no earlier than the 1950s. But the diorama form is very much alive and well in this museum as, indeed, it is in some other natural history museums around the world. There are more than 100 dioramas in the Milan collection — and three new ones are coming soon.
This is somehow surprising. Diorama seems so old-fashioned. It dates back to the era before widespread access to color photography, not to mention to a time when free digital access to information and graphical media would have been considered science-fiction. Indeed, everything you see in a diorama is a collaboration of science and craft or science and art. Every leaf, for example, in the diorama jungle will be hand-cut and hand-painted. And even the animals, which are usually genuine, have been subject to the taxidermist's handiwork.
There is also the fact that the animals in a diorama are stiff — and not only because they are stuffed. They are stiff also because there is something theatrical about the way they are staged or posed.
And this, in turn, I think, has everything to do with the fact that there is a pane of glass separating us and them.
Ask yourself: Why the glass?
This is no zoo and there's no danger of anything breaking out. Nor is there any reason to think that people are going to invade diorama exhibits.
No, the glass has a different sort of function. It provides a frame. It works like the curtains bunched in a cord at either end of a theatrical stage. It is the pane separating us from the world of the diorama. Without the glass, you're just looking at a display in front of you. With the glass, you are are peering, as if by magic, into a world remote in space and time.
It bring us into the domain of pretend. When we look at a diorama, we only pretend to see what it shows us.
In Milan, there is one diorama where a tree casts shadows on the sky. Very few of the people in my tour group noticed this. (I didn't.) I think this is not because we didn't see the sky, or because the painted backdrop created a perfect sky illusion. It's that we were only pretending it was the sky anyway.
I go into this because it may be that the quaintness and old-wordiness of dioramas have something to do with the way they invite pretend — and, so, play — to happen. And this may also explain the remarkable fact that, despite the quaintness, diorama thrives as an exhibition mode in today's high-tech culture.
My tour guide in Milan bemoaned the fact that the public tends to think of natural history museums, in general, as places for kids. This is not accurate, he insisted. Natural history museums are places for research and knowledge creation and art/science collaboration.
That's true. But they are also places, as we have just been considering, for magic, pretend and play. Maybe grown ups don't do that so well. In fact, maybe we can't do it the way we used to do it as children.
You can organize all the evening cocktail parties you like at the museum, but that won't get the grown-ups to use the pane-glass portal the way kids can.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe