The diorama is still one of the most effective gimmicks in the museum business. You can lose yourself in these little worlds behind glass. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re three-dimensional.
In 1939, the Work Projects Administration funded the creation of twenty dioramas depicting scenes from Abraham Lincoln’s life for the Chicago Historical Society. Painstaking research and craftsmanship went into each one. Some fifty artists spent two years putting them together.
Today we have five of these masterpieces on exhibit at the ALLM. Visitors (especially kids) are invariably drawn to them, like metal shavings to magnets.
Let’s take a look at one of the scenes. It’s May 19, 1860. We’re inside the parlor of Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield home. The Republican Party has just concluded its second national convention in Chicago. A delegation has arrived by train to inform Lincoln that he’s the party’s nominee for president.
George Ashmun of Massachusetts is handing Lincoln the official letter of nomination.
The décor is historically accurate to a middle-class Victorian home. In fact, the wallpaper matches the actual design used in the Lincolns’ parlor. Check out that exquisite little flower under glass in the corner…
…and the tiny books on the shelf.
The attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing. There’s a miniature picket fence affixed to the exterior of the back wall, just in case a viewer should decide to peer through the windows. It’s hardly visible from the front; most visitors probably don’t notice it. I had no idea it was there until the first time I saw the diorama from the back.
The Lincoln figure looks pretty solemn, but there was a bit of levity to the proceedings. The nominee asked William D. Kelley of Pennsylvania—I think he’s the fellow standing between Ashmun and Lincoln—how tall he was. Kelley was 6’3″.
“I beat you,” Lincoln said, “I am six feet four without my high-heeled boots.”
Kelley had a sense of humor. “Pennsylvania bows to Illinois,” he replied. “I am glad that we have found a candidate for the Presidency whom we can look up to.”