Ursus Arctos Middendorffii
Canoe Bay, Alaska Peninsula
Hall of North American Mammals
The brown bear diorama is an American Museum of Natural History icon, an artwork of heroic proportions. It stands at the far end of the Hall of North American Mammals, visible from the first-floor Central Park West entrance to the museum, where it makes a dramatic and indelible impression.
The monumental taxidermy in this diorama is the work of Robert Rockwell. Rockwell came to the museum in 1925, after establishing himself as a professional taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum. By the time he retired in 1942, Rockwell had provided more than one hundred taxidermy mounts for the dioramas in the museum. The two Alaska brown bears in this diorama are his signature works.
These are huge animals. As the largest living terrestrial carnivores on earth, they can reach a maximum weight of sixteen hundred pounds.
The standing bear in the diorama is more than eight feet tall. For its fabrication, Rockwell first sculpted a life-size clay replica of the animal, complete in every anatomical detail, which he encased in plaster. Once the plaster had dried to create a hard shell, Rockwell removed the shell from the clay model and used the hollow interior to cast a papier-maché replica of the standing bear sculpture.
The tanned skin of the hear was then applied or mounted on the maché mannequin with a thick paste and the skin seams sewn in place, effectively covering the model of the bear with a fur coat. Glass eyes, of exactly the right size and color, and a dab of varnish on the bear’s nose completed the illusion.
One of Gardner Stout’s favorite memories of his tenure as museum president was of the time he was walking through the museum and encountered a child standing mesmerized before the brown bear diorama, her nose pressed to the glass. As he stepped toward her to observe, she turned from the huge and imposing animals looming over her and exclaimed, “It’s magic!”