When you peer through the glass at Lewis Lindsay Dyche’s famous panorama—housed in the KU Natural History Museum in the eponymous Dyche Hall near the Kansas Union—animal conservation probably isn’t the first thing you think of. But the exhibit, which turns 125 this year, was first and foremost an effort to preserve animal species that Dyche believed wouldn’t survive for future generations to see.
“Temptations which induce the explorer, the pleasure seeker, the frontiersman as well as the professional sportsman to wage a war upon the large mammals . . . continually reduces ranks and will soon result in their utter extermination as wild species.” Dyche believed.
To preserve what he could, Dyche became determined to exhibit a grand panorama of North American species at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. With the help of several assistants, and people like William Hornaday—who worked for the Smithsonian and taught Dyche how to carefully preserve the animals—Dyche collected 121 different species.
In the winter of 1893, those species traveled north to Chicago in eight rail cars, where Dyche and an assistant worked through negative twenty degree temperatures in an unheated building to prepare the exhibit for the fair. At times, Dyche, himself, lived in the exhibit, as he stretched animal hides over wooden frames wrapped with wire, and brought in logs from the Kansas River to make the scenes look more realistic.
His hard work paid off. When the fair opened the exhibit averaged about ten thousand viewers per day, with twenty thousand viewers per day towards the end of its May to October run.
Why was the exhibit so popular? According Jen Humphrey, Director of External Affairs for the Natural History Museum, the novelty of the background was what led to it being so well-received. “Up until that time, taxidermied animals were just presented on pedestals. The life-like background and the interactions between the animals were a new idea.” Humphrey said.
When the fair was over Dyche brought the exhibit back to Kansas where, with the help of then-chancellor Francis Snow, he lobbied the legislature for money for the museum. Built to resemble the layout of a church—a nod to Dyche’s reverence for nature—Dyche Hall opened in 1903, and has housed the panorama for all but about ten years since.
“The interesting thing about the panorama is that the whole thing is an illusion. It’s a little like looking at a painting, albeit a three-dimensional one. It looks completely different on the other side of the glass. I see things I don’t notice from out here.” Humphrey said.
While the panorama is magnificent, be sure to check out the rest of the KU Natural History Museum while you’re there. From a “please touch” paleogarden to life-size dinosaur bones, the museum is working hard to update exhibits both to foster opportunities for parents and children to interact, and to make the displays more artistic while still conveying information.
“People who were here three years ago—or even six months ago—will find a lot has changed,” Humphrey said.
Here are a few special events being held this year, specifically to celebrate the 125th birthday of the panorama:
Through A Glass Wildly, a celebration of the Panorama featuring the poetry of Elizabeth Schultz, KU professor emerita of English. July 11th, 6:30 p.m. Free event, but requires tickets.
Panorama 125, welcoming KU students to campus and featuring Cracker Jacks, the American snack that premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair. August 17th, 2 p.m. Free event.
Discovery Day: Panorama, an event for families featuring museum mammals, games, and activities. July 22, 1-3 p.m. Free event.
Magic Lantern Revisited, a special event to be held in South Park, in downtown Lawrence, featuring images Dyche used in public lectures at the turn of the last century. September 20th, 7 p.m. Ticketed event.
A proud Lawrence transplant, Meryl Carver-Allmond lives in a hundred-year-old house with her sweet husband, two darling kiddos, one puppy, one gecko, and an ever rotating flock of poultry. By day, she’s a public defender. By night, she writes, takes photos, knits, and cooks up a storm. She chronicles her adventures on her personal blog, My Bit of Earth.