“Seeing Through: The Materiality of Dioramas (1600-2010)”

Radwan, Nadia; Etienne Schuler, Noémie (2016). “Seeing Through: The Materiality of Dioramas (1600-2010)” (Unpublished). In: International Conference: “Seeing Through: The Materiality of Dioramas (1600-2010)”. University of Bern. 01.-02.12.2016.

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Dioramas are at the crossroads of artistic, scientific and cultural practices. They bring together painters, sculptors, scientists, and collectors, thus providing an opportunity to reflect on the polyvalence of these actors and the definition of their expertise. In 1822, the painter and scientist Louis Daguerre coined the term “diorama” when describing his theater. The word diorama means literally “seeing through.” In accordance with this etymology, dioramas embody a sense of transparency and life-likeness. In addition to providing theatrical and visual experiences, dioramas are multidimensional installations that incorporate paintings, objects, stuffed animals or mannequins. Habitat groups mixing taxidermy and painted backgrounds were designed for natural history museums, while anthropological dioramas were disseminated all over Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. They were usually life-sized and site specific but they could also be reduced to maquettes.

To date, these installations have been studied by scholars from various disciplines, mainly as side topics. Media historians have considered them primarily as proto-cinematic, whereas within the fields of anthropology, museum studies and postcolonial studies, they are generally analyzed as displays that reflect political taxonomies and stereotyped representations.

However, dioramas are not merely images or displays: they are also physical objects made of multiple materials, such as plaster, wood, paper, paint, glass, fur, wax, and metal. The discipline of art history thus provides us with the opportunity to approach the materiality of these installations. Indeed, dioramas are composite and hybrid things, created through cultural interaction and physical encounter. Multiple hands as well as various visions are involved in the process of their creation – and later on, during their conservation. Dioramas therefore allow for the study of contact zones and material exchanges between private and public spheres, as well as between Western and non-Western contexts. Finally, dioramas as objects of study within the field of art history enable us to address values such as authenticity and realism in various contexts.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Abstract)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Art History > Contemporary Art
06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Art History
06 Faculty of Humanities > Other Institutions > Walter Benjamin Kolleg (WBKolleg) > Center for Global Studies (CGS)

UniBE Contributor:

Radwan, Nadia and Etienne Schuler, Noémie


700 Arts
700 Arts > 730 Sculpture, ceramics & metalwork
700 Arts > 740 Drawing & decorative arts
700 Arts > 750 Painting
700 Arts > 760 Graphic arts
700 Arts > 770 Photography & computer art




Nadia Susanne Radwan

Date Deposited:

06 Jun 2017 10:42

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:03





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