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What is a Diorama?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A diorama is a carefully staged model which can be used for a variety of purposes. Many museums and educational institutions use dioramas as educational tools to convey information in an interesting and dynamic way which appeals to viewers. A diorama can also be used as an architectural model to convey the shape and form of a proposed building or structure. Many students also make dioramas at some point for various classes, especially in elementary and middle school.

Classically, a diorama is assembled inside a box. The inside of the box is painted to create a backdrop, which varies depending on the desired effect of the diorama. Then, various objects are positioned inside the diorama to create a scene. For example, a natural history museum might set up a scene which depicts dinosaurs on a prehistoric plain. In addition to the dinosaurs, the diorama would probably also include historically accurate plants and other features to make the diorama more interesting the look at.

Museum dioramas are quite famous. Many museums use dioramas as teaching tools to set the stage for a collection or display, and to bring their collections to life for visitors. Typically, each diorama is accompanied by a plaque, audio track, or informational brochure which explains what is inside. Some museums may also change the content of their dioramas to reflect the changing seasons, and a diorama sometimes includes moving features as well.

The size of a diorama can vary widely. School children make dioramas in things like shoeboxes; these small models are designed to bring lesson plans to life in a way which is easy for students to accomplish. They also encourage students to research things and bring information back to share with the rest of the class. A museum diorama is much larger, often including life-sized objects and artifacts so that viewers feel more connected to the scene.

Depending on the design, a diorama may provide a small window into a scene, or it could be used to create a sweeping panoramic model which is designed to make viewers feel like they are standing in the middle of the scene. In the sense of an architectural model, the diorama is designed to be manipulated so that people can see it from different views, and people may be able to reach in and move parts of the diorama. The moving parts allow people to see how subtle changes can affect the overall look of the structure, and they can be useful for illustration various construction options.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By cloudel — On Aug 26, 2011

I was always impressed yet terrified of the dinosaur dioramas at my local museum. Once I walked into that room, I felt like I was transported back in time.

The walls were painted with wild looking plants that I have never seen before. An actual waterfall ran out of one corner of the ceiling, and it flowed into a stream that ran along the wall.

Reconstructed dinosaur skeletons filled the center of the room. You could push a button to hear the horrifying sound each one made, followed by information about that dinosaur.

I could not look away, even if I wanted to, and I remember feeling like I should run out the door. Scary as it was, the diorama intrigued me enough that I could function in the midst of my fear.

By orangey03 — On Aug 26, 2011

In second grade, we had to make dioramas using a shoebox and clay. We each got to choose a book to read, and then we had to illustrate a scene from the book by making clay figurines.

I chose a book about a unicorn without a horn. He finally got a horn when his teardrops made crystals on the ground. He lowered his head, and it touched a crystal, which attached to his forehead.

I used several colors of clay to make the crystals. I made clumps of them all over the bottom of the box, which I painted green for grass. I made the unicorn white, and I put his head in a downward position. I attached it to a crystal on the ground.

By tlcJPC — On Aug 25, 2011

When I was in college, I was required to take a technical theatre course for my major. Although my particular emphases were acting and directing, we had a very well-rounded curriculum that also required wide reaching technically oriented courses.

Our final assignment was to create a diorama miniature of a set design that we had previously completed.

We had to actually choose a show and research it just the way that a director would, but then we took the hat of set designer and began to do renderings and floor plans of our set.

For our final masterpiece, we actually had to create a ¼ inch scale model of our school’s main stage with our scaled set built on it.

It was by far one of the most difficult projects that I ever tackled, but later one that I was most proud of as well.

I imagine I had a good sixty hours in the creation of just the diorama, not including all of the work and research that got me to that point. It made me completely respect the set designer and carpenter's skills, dude.

By parkthekarma — On Aug 25, 2011

I am a big fan of architecture, and I love the dioramas they use to show the future configuration of buildings and complexes that have yet to be built. You can really get a good idea of what the building is going to look like by studying the diorama. A lot of them are really detailed (and expensive).

This really helped when we were looking at condominiums in Toronto a few years back. They are building so fast there, the whole building can be sold out before they have it finished.

So what they do is rent space and set up a model, then build a diorama to show what the whole thing will look like when it is done. It really gives you a good, three-dimensional view of the area, rather than forcing you to use your imagination or look at a picture.

By MaPa — On Aug 24, 2011

I am somewhat of a Civil War buff, having studied history in college. In the process, I learned that there is a whole community of historians who make amazing dioramas of famous Civil War battles, either using diorama kits or making the whole thing from scratch.

The scenes are often built around lead miniatures, which are often painstakingly painted to be accurate representations of the uniforms of the day. The attention to detail in these things is really amazing.

By Nepal2016 — On Aug 24, 2011

@Mirian98 - I used to do the same thing with my mom when I was a kid. I remember when we read the "Little House on the Prairie" books we made a diorama showing life in a cabin like the ones described in the book. Or at least as close as my third-grade construction skills could make it.

I am sure you can do a diorama of just about any scene, but when I think of them I definitely think of scenes from early American history.

By David09 — On Aug 23, 2011

@miriam98 - That’s neat. I love the museum dioramas, especially the kinds that recreate Native American history that include Pocahontas and early settlers.

The wax figures are so lifelike and the placards beneath the exhibit provide a lot of information about the early history, in a synopsis form.

Nowadays with so much emphasis on high tech media used to illuminate and entertain, it’s so nice to enjoy the simplicity of a diorama that tells a story with striking visuals and vivid details.

By miriam98 — On Aug 22, 2011

I used to love helping my kids make dioramas for school book reports. In the fifth grade my son had to read the book Huckleberry Finn. He had a variety of methods he could use to deliver his book report and he chose to use a diorama.

It was a lot of fun to help him cut out colored construction paper and paste it into the shoebox as a backdrop, and use some spare action figures that we used as diorama figurines for the props of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

I think we also used things like cotton swabs and buttons too to help create the scene. It was a very painstaking, detailed piece of work. He was so pleased with the final product that he kept it as a display in his room for many weeks after he completed his book report.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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