Several dozen members of the Lawrence community took a look "behind the glass" of the Kansas University Natural History Museum panorama Wednesday night. Not literally, of course — that would require a hazmat suit.
Attendees of the public lecture at the KU Commons did get to learn more about the history and ongoing conservation of 120-year-old exhibit featuring North American plants and animals, one of the oldest and largest panoramas in the world and most popular attractions at the museum.
Conservators have spent the past several weeks behind the glass (in white hazardous materials suits, to protect against the toxic chemicals used by taxidermists around the turn of the 20th century), meticulously cleaning and examining the panorama, which was originally created by then-KU professor Lewis Lindsay Dyche for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The conservators will later prepare a report with their recommendations for the panorama's preservation, due in late spring or early summer.
Bill Sharp, co-author of a biography on Dyche and director of research administration at KU, said Dyche was so dedicated to the panorama that, during the world's fair, he built a living quarters underneath one of the mounts, sleeping there every night for nearly a year.
"What he created was a sensation: well-maintained animals in their natural habitat," Sharp said, noting that the exhibit was viewed by up to 20,000 people a day. "It became clear to the Legislature that Kansas had something worth preserving."
Noting the exhibit's popularity, state lawmakers approved funding for the 1902 construction of Dyche Hall, where the panorama has been housed ever since.
Conservator Ron Harvey says examining the panorama has been "like walking inside a painting." The plants and animals were placed just so, to give viewers the illusion of being in nature. So cleaning and assessing the exhibit, he said, has been "like ballet, yoga and trying to levitate."
"Looking down on folks on the other side of the glass is pretty cool," he said. "Kids … really like it when they tap on the glass and we wave."
Harvey called the exhibit the "most important North American panorama," adding: "We want to this stay around another 100 years. … You are incredibly lucky to have this in your backyard."
Museum director Leonard Krishtalka noted how groundbreaking the exhibit was for visitors to the 1893 World's Fair. "To them, it was a never-seen world of nature," he said, "transporting them magically … from Chicago … to the Great Plains, the Rockies."
"We knew it was magic because it is magic for the Legislature to appropriate funds for the university," he joked, to laughter from the crowd.
Turning serious, Krishtalka said the museum has the same goal in mind that Dyche did more than a century ago: preservation. "Just like the animals and plants outside the panorama, the animals and plants inside the panorama are in danger of disappearing," he said.
After the museum receives the conservation report in a few months, "We're going to bring the community into the panorama — metaphorically speaking," he added. "We want the community, we want all of you, to give us your best ideas for reimagining the panorama for the future and yet preserving its legacy as an American cultural treasure."