One of America’s treasures

‘If you do a lineage of the major museums that stress natural history, so many of them trace their roots back to KU’

Prolonged exposure to light and temperatures when Dyche Hall did not have air conditioning have caused damage to many of the animals such as this caribou.

Bruce Scherting, director of exhibits and design at the Natural History Museum gives a tour from inside the panorama on the main floor at Dyche Hall on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. Scherting and other officials at the museum hope to restore the display, which was created for the Columbian Exposition in 1893.

It is the Kansas University cradle that doesn’t get talked about much.

Throw the word “cradle” out on the KU campus, and as sure as a diaper eventually will become dirty, the conversation will land on basketball. You know, “the cradle of basketball coaching,” or “Allen Fieldhouse: The Cradle of Champions,” or if you run into a particularly enthusiastic bunch, you may even hear that KU is the cradle of the very game itself.

But inside his director’s office at the KU Biodiversity Institute, that’s not the cradle Leonard Krishtalka is talking about.

“Kansas University, this place, is one of the cradles of modern paleontology, modern mammalogy, modern entomology, modern archaeology,” Krishtalka said. “If you do a lineage of the major museums that stress natural history, so many of them trace their roots back to KU.”

KU and its basketball history have James Naismith, the inventor of the game who started the school’s basketball program in 1898. But five years before that, it was KU’s icon of natural history — Lewis Lindsay Dyche — who was far more famous than Naismith.

“He was like a cross between Marco Polo and those guys who hosted the ‘Wild Kingdom’ television program,” Krishtalka said.

While Naismith was harvesting a seed about a game involving a ball and a round cylinder, Dyche was harvesting almost anything he set his sights on: moose, bison, even gigantic walruses he hunted as a member of an Arctic exploration party.

Dyche had become one of the country’s leading taxidermists, explorers and raconteurs as he traveled early 20th-century America telling stories of his adventures. Somehow, he ended up creating a story that is still telling itself today.

But these days, Dyche doesn’t travel. You have to come to Dyche, as in Dyche Hall. The ornate campus building houses the Natural History Museum and much of the man’s taxidermy work — including Comanche, the famed horse that was the only member of Lt. Gen. George Custer’s party to survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

You won’t find 16,300 screaming fans at any point in Dyche, as you will on any game day at Allen Fieldhouse, but a trip to the museum ought to evoke the same thought: You’ve just walked through the doors of a blue-blood program.

In fact, Krishtalka will tell you KU’s natural history program has been garnering top rankings longer than the basketball program.

“Since the late 1800s, Kansas has been in the top two or three in the country in the study of biodiversity,” Krishtalka said.

In a recent external academic review, KU’s Biodiversity Institute was ranked as one of the top three nationally in the study of biodiversity. The other two: the University of California, Berkeley and the Smithsonian Institution.

“Our history has been fundamental to our success,” Krishtalka said. “We got a head start on the rest of the country, and we’ve never stopped.”

And you thought you were just looking at evidence of a bad day for a bison.

If you have ever been through KU’s Natural History Museum — located just south of the Kansas Union — you’ve seen the large display of stuffed animals and preserved flora and fauna known as the Panorama of North American Plants and Animals.

The display — measuring almost 8,300 square feet — has all types of North American animals– from walruses in the Arctic to deadly tropical snakes at the equator.

But the denizens of the Panorama that always catch the eyes of the numerous school field trips that tour the display are the wolves: A whole pack of them, violently gnawing on the carcass of a bison.

So indeed, a bad day for the bison. But a big day for the history of museums.

That little scene is this place’s peach basket hanging from the wall. It is the thing that created a new game. Before Dyche created that scene in 1893, most people who were removed from the frontier hadn’t seen nature in such a graphic way. The art of taxidermy — and by extension, museum displays — centered on putting animals in pristine poses.

But Dyche knew nature wasn’t posed, and he aimed to make sure the rest of the country knew it too. Dyche created a 4,800-square-foot diorama of North American animals for the Kansas Hall at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Fairgoers were captivated. The exhibit had an average attendance of about 30,000 a day, which is enough to even get the ticket-sellers at Allen Fieldhouse excited.

“The public ate it up,” said Bruce Scherting, director of exhibits at the Natural History Museum. “They loved the spectacle of it. The scientists didn’t like it. They thought it was too theatrical.”

But the die had been cast, and Dyche’s presentation of nature clearly won out. Don’t believe it? Take a walk into a Cabela’s store or turn on Animal Planet.

That’s why Krishtalka contends the Panorama is more than just another display.

“It really is a piece of history in the history of museums,” Krishtalka said.

But it also is still a wonderful way to view nature, he said. The display has 223 different mammals, birds, insects and reptiles that encompass 121 different species.

Try finding that on a walk in the park. Krishtalka agrees that experiencing nature live and in person is still the best experience, but he said the Panorama is clearly second best, better than the more popular television nature shows and online videos.

The Panorama gives you a better sense of size and detail than a video can. The display even has one advantage over a trip to the wild: It is more comfortable.

“You really don’t want to see,” Krishtalka said, “a tropical snake dropping out of a tree.”

“You have now passed through the looking glass,” Scherting, the director of exhibits, tells a Journal-World reporter and photographer as they walk through a door that leads to a place most members of the public don’t get to go: Behind the glass wall of the Panorama.

Indeed, not all looks like it should back here. Scherting points out the coloring of many of the animals like moose and bison. Their coats are lighter on their backs than on their bellies. That is the exact opposite of what would occur in nature. A combination of the Panorama’s lighting and climate control systems have led to the discoloration.

Other animals have cracked snouts or hooves. Many of the animals are now more than 120 years old, as Dyche in many cases had harvested the animals more than a decade before he displayed them at the 1893 exhibition.

University leaders have been on a campaign for much of the year to raise $100,000 to fund a detailed study of how animals of the Panorama can be restored, and what changes to lighting, climate control and other factors are needed to preserve the animals for the future.

The university received a $50,000 challenge grant, and in mid-April, Krishtalka said the department was close to securing the remaining $50,000.

But that just will be a start. University officials are waiting for the report before making an estimate on how much it will cost to restore the exhibit. But it will be significant, and, Krishtalka said, worth it.

“This was the biggest thing of its time,” Krishtalka said. “Nothing had been attempted on this scale before. It exposed the public to nature in ways it hadn’t seen before and wouldn’t see, if not for the Panorama,” Krishtalka said.

In the next five years, Krishtalka predicts the Panorama will be “fresh, stunning, colorful, brilliantly lit and much more educational and exciting than it is now.”

He’s also predicting it will be something else: Much like the man who created it, a spectacle that will be worth coming from far and wide to see.

“This is one of America’s cultural treasurers,” Krishtalka said. “It should be a national destination.”

Sure, while you’re in town, you can catch a basketball game, too.