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The Nature of the Imagination:
An Interview w/ Kara Oehler
and Ann Heppermann


A group of artists at work on the Bison diorama:  (from left)  Fred Scherer and James Perry Wilson paint the background, while George Frederick Mason installs grass in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Stephen C. Quinn.

Kara Oehler and Ann Heppermann have been making radio together since 2002. The Brooklyn-based duo has aired their work on public radio shows including This American Life, Morning Edition, The Next Big Thing, Radio Lab, and Marketplace. For Stories from the Heart of the Land, they explored the Dioramas Exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History for the hour on Imagination. Dioramas take people to natural places that they may never visit in person, and leave them with the sense that they have been there, at least in their imagination. Here Oehler and Hepperman share snapshots of their experience in the field.

About the Piece :

Kara Oehler: People who go to the American Museum of Natural History are often completely shocked and surprised that you can go into this building in the middle of New York, the concrete jungle, and visit places in nature. There's really something special about a life size animal staring you in the eye. That's something that you just can't capture on television.

The Sites of the Dioramas

The dioramas actually represent really specific places in nature. They have an amazing wolf diorama set in Gunflint Lake, Michigan. It's set at night, and the stars are painted exactly as they were on the night the artist was there. And in the Gorillas exhibit, which is set in the Congo, you can see a volcano painted off in the distance. That's a real volcano—Carl Akeley, one of the original taxidermists, actually died on that volcano and is buried there.

Mythical Creatures exhibit

We got to see them make the Mythical Creatures exhibit, which just opened. It was really fun to talk with the fabricators. I remember one guy came around the corner carrying these huge gorilla hands made out of foam—they were making a giant gorilla, which they called a Gigantopithecus. It was fun to come back later to the finished exhibit and see those gorilla hands on the finished Gigantopithecus. It seems like a really awesome job. We decided that in another life, that would be the job we wanted to have.

Music for the Piece

We were inside the museum before it opened—which in itself was amazing—trying to record the sounds of the exhibits. And at one point Kara said "I wish we could just talk to the person who has these recordings," and right then this group of five guys walked up and said "We're the AV department!" "What do you need?" It was amazing!

So we got CDs from six different departments—both field recordings and music that is used in the exhibits—and we were able to use those in our piece, which is great. If you went to the American Museum of Natural History, you would hear that African drum in their musical instruments part, or that crazy electronic music in the Hall of Human Origins... so even though it may sound like just music, it's really much more. It's part of the diorama experience.

After learning so much about the American Museum of Natural History, Kara and Ann consider themselves "little docent tour guides," and take friends and family on special tours. These tours point out, among other things, the spot in the museum—hidden in plain sight—where the early diorama artists would conduct their amorous affairs.

Listen to "A Window in Time" on our The Nature of the Imagination Page.

Production: Atlantic Public Media. Curated by Jay Allison and Emily Botein.
Funding: Supported by The Nature Conservancy and Visa.

The Nature ConservancyVisa

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