Panoramic History

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A bison being prepared.

The art of taxidermy can be traced to the Greeks and even the Egyptians. In the late 19th century it began to change under the influence of two innovators. One was William Temple Hornaday, an experienced taxidermist and zoologist at what is now the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, and the other was Lewis Lindsay Dyche, a professor at the University of Kansas. 

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Two of William T. Hornaday's "true to life" orangutan specimens (Univ. of Iowa).

Bison – those monstrous, intimidating creatures – helped bring the two men together when Dyche was a budding naturalist and specimen collector at KU. In order to further his knowledge of taxidermy, he left KU to study under Hornaday. Dyche learned about Hornaday's techniques as the two prepared  a bison mount.

Contrary to popular practice, which favored sensational and dramatic scenes, Hornaday posed his taxidermied specimens as they would be if seen in the wild. This “fidelity to life” approach educated viewers about the lifestyles of the animals and also made the scenes more realistic.

When he returned to the university, Dyche used his knowledge to create the Panorama of North American Plants and Animals. The assembly of animals debuted at the Kansas Pavillion of the World's Columbian Exhibition (the 1893 world's fair) in Chicago. Drawing huge crowds, Dyche’s panorama was a major milestone in both the presentation of animals and in the usefulness of taxidermy as a method of presentation: the display was a tool for educating about animal behavior and habitat. (See video of the panorama here, and close-up video here.)

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Dyche's Panorama in the Columbian Exhibition of 1893

In the years that followed the fair, the university's collections of preserved animals for research and those Dyche prepared for display outgrew their space in university facilities. After many requests from Dyche and colleagues such as Professor Francis Huntington Snow, the state of Kansas eventually allocated funds to construct a museum to house them. The panorama became its centerpiece, and remains a major attraction today.