KU Natural History Museum to celebrate beloved panorama’s 125th anniversary with special exhibit, programs
photo by: Nick Krug
In 1893, Louis Lindsay Dyche introduced visitors at the World’s Columbian Exhibition to a new kind of attraction — one that transported everyday Americans to the Kansas prairie, the Rocky Mountains and the Eastern woodlands.
The wildlife panorama, featuring 121 mammals native to North America, was one of the most popular exhibits at that year’s World’s Fair in Chicago, attracting upward of 20,000 visitors a day in its final weeks. These days, it’s not quite so heavily trafficked, but the panorama remains a beloved fixture just the same at the University of Kansas.
Its longtime home — KU’s Natural History Museum, at 1345 Jayhawk Blvd. — is celebrating the display’s 125th anniversary this year with a new exhibit (featuring artifacts and photographs from Dyche’s career) and a series of panorama-themed events.
“It was an incredible hit right from the very beginning, because the world had never seen anything like this panoramic representation of nature with so many animals with this terrific art of taxidermy, with a path through the panorama that families could walk and get up close and personal with all these animals,” said Leonard Krishtalka, director of KU’s Biodiversity Institute. “Buffalo and antelope and coyote and caribou and big-horned sheep that they would never see (otherwise).”
The display was unusual at the time for its realistic painted backdrop, which presented the animals in a more natural setting than the blank backdrops that had previously been the norm. Dyche’s diorama immersed visitors in the “entire ecosystem” of America’s wilderness, demonstrating “to people that nature was worth preserving and stewarding,” Krishtalka said.
Even then, he said, Dyche and his colleagues were concerned about the impact of human activity on the survival of America’s native species.
“This was a call to nature, and a call to human responsibility to appreciate nature and steward it wisely,” Krishtalka said.
The panorama turned out to be among the top five most popular exhibits at the 1893 World’s Fair, and Dyche received several offers (including a very generous one from Chicago’s Field Museum) for the entire panorama and for single pieces in the display.
“Dyche refused all these offers,” Krishtalka said. “I think he knew that it being so popular, he could take it back to KU, to Kansas, where it could be the generator of a fabulous building to house it, a showpiece for the panorama.”
Dyche, of course, was right. Just after the turn of the century, the Kansas Legislature appropriated $60,000 for the construction of Dyche Hall, home to the KU Natural History Museum and the KU Biodiversity Institute. Krishtalka said the building was modeled after a cathedral in France, with the panorama gallery resembling a church nave.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” he said of the gallery’s “reverent” design. “That was deliberate.”
Now, 125 years later, the museum is hoping to restore the panorama to its original glory. An assessment in 2014 estimated it would take approximately $500,000 to repair deterioration suffered from fluctuating temperatures, light and humidity in Dyche Hall’s early decades.
Krishtalka said the restorations are part of a larger renovation effort to make the panorama and museum more relevant to 21st-century audiences.
“The good news is that each and every one of them can be repaired and saved, because the panorama is an American cultural treasure,” he said of the panorama’s animals. “It’s also the largest surviving object from the World’s Fair. There aren’t many.”
Below are several events marking the panorama’s 125th anniversary. All events are at the Natural History Museum unless otherwise noted.
• “Through a Glass Wildly,” a celebration of the panorama featuring the poetry of Elizabeth Schultz, a KU professor emerita of English. The event, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 11, is free but requires tickets. (They can be reserved at www.biodiversity.ku.edu.)
• “Discovery Day: Panorama,” from 1 to 3 p.m. July 22. This free program includes games and activities for the whole family.
• “Panorama 125,” a reception welcoming KU students to campus at 2 p.m. Aug. 17. The free event will feature Cracker Jack, a snack that premiered at the 1893 World’s Fair.
• “Magic Lantern Revisited,” a special event slated for 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at South Park, 1141 Massachusetts St. The program will feature images used by Dyche in public lectures at the turn of the 20th century. Tickets are required, and will become available online beginning July 15.