Vintage Texas Wildlife Dioramas
The new dioramas in the Education Wing have been a regular part of the museum for several decades. When their occupied space was deemed essential for renovation, museum staff was unable to simply throw away these dioramas with their rich and fine detail. Instead we decided to make an effort to do what museums do best – conserve these precious historical antiquities, preserving them for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
With research, we were able to determine when these incredible murals were painted. The Texas Gulf Coast scene is the oldest diorama on display. It was painted in the mid 1940s when the museum was located on its former grounds at the Houston Zoo. Initially this diorama was perhaps one-third its current depth; the walls were added in later years to match those of the other three. Travis Keese painted both the Prairie (1965) and Davis Mountains (1967) scenes during his tenure as museum staff artist (1964-71). The Big Thicket scene was done around 1969 by an artist name Harry Wortham. Keese was then contracted in 1996 to do conservation work on all of the murals, and also at that time painted the High Plains mural that is framed on the left. The murals were again touched-up by artist fabricators Brian Zievert and Robert Shuttlesworth during the 2014 reinstallation.
The Gulf Coast, Prairie and Big Thicket dioramas in the main row represent three Texas habitats that can be explored and enjoyed nearby, while the Davis Mountains diorama (down the hall) is further afield in west Texas. The common theme connecting these four dioramas is focusing on different species of keystone carnivores. American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is the top carnivore in the Gulf Coast diorama, Coyote (Canis latrans) for Prairie, Bobcat (Lynx rufus) for Big Thicket, and Mountain Lion (Felis concolor) for Davis Mountains. Top predators play a very important role in their ecosystem, keeping prey populations healthy and in-check. The prey in-turn provide nutrition to sustain the carnivores.