Our First Hundred Years

Part Five: Homer Dill—An Emphasis on Exhibition

Homer R. Dill, who joined the Museum staff in 1906 as taxidermist and assistant professor of zoology, succeeded Nutting in 1926. While still serving under Nutting, Dill established himself as a capable leader by heading the collecting trips to Hawaii (1911 and 1920), Louisiana (1918), Washington (1919 and 1920), Wyoming (1921), Florida (1921), Colorado (1923), and Mexico (1924). With the exception of the 1911 Laysan Island expedition which resulted in scientific journal descriptions, these trips were organized solely to gather specimens for public display. Dill and his students expertly prepared the specimens in his "Taxidermy and Plastic Art" laboratory. The resulting dioramas, complete with foreground accessories and mural backdrops, were a significant departure from the Museum's earlier curatorial style displays with its uninspiring rows of mounted specimens on polished wooden bases. Dill received much acclaim for his taxidermy and exhibit work. The hallmark exhibit of Professor Dill's tenure was the superb Laysan Island Cyclorama--probably still the best known of the Museum's ornithological exhibits. Homer Dill was chosen by Nutting to head the Laysan Island expedition, from which a total of 398 birds representing 23 species were collected. Of these, five species were endemic to the island—found nowhere else in the world. Professor Dill later directed the preparation of the unique exhibit. The mounting of the 106 birds and installation of the cyclorama foreground required nearly three years. Charles A. Corwin, a noted muralist at the Field Museum in Chicago, accompanied the expedition under an agreement that the Field Museum would be provided with a complete series of Laysan bird skins in exchange for his services. Corwin's exhibit mural, based on field sketches he made on the island, is 138 feet long and twelve feet high. When the display was completed in 1914, it was among the first museum exhibits anywhere to depict either birds or mammals in a cycloramic presentation of their natural habitat. It is recognized today by museum historians as a milestone in the evolution of the dioramic display concept. Reflecting a 20th-century trend in other American museums of natural history, several of Prof. Dill's later museum expeditions can more accurately be described as hunting trips, funded by private benefactors with interests keyed more to the pursuit of trophy animals than science. By 1927—the severance of the Museum from the Department of Zoology and the death of Professor Nutting—even this level of collecting had largely ceased. After the 1920s, the Museum's collecting sphere was also appropriately reduced from the cosmopolitan venue of Nutting's tenure. Prof. Dill and curator Walter C. Thietje, who had joined the museum staff in 1929 as Dill's assistant, spent the greater portion of their careers collecting North American birds and mammals, mounting them in systematic series and in several habitat groupings. Professor Thietje was placed in charge of the Museum in 1949 upon Dill's retirement. Walter Thietje continued the ornithological collecting of Dill until his retirement in 1971, and his work essentially completed the Museum's North American taxonomic display series. Back to About Us