In the mid-1920s, a Harvard professor and a philanthropist colleague envisioned a three-dimensional, miniature scaled exhibit depicting the land-use history, ecology, conservation and management of New England forests. Fifteen years later, their vision was realized with the completion of more than 20 magnificently detailed dioramas – miniaturized, incredibly realistic scenes showing how the New England landscape changed over three centuries as Europeans settled in the region and managed the land. Still used in teaching Harvard students, other visiting classes and for many other educational programs, this unique exhibit remains widely acclaimed and is regularly visited by scholars and other interested citizens from around the world.
In 1903, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hired Richard T. Fisher to establish a school of forestry at the University. In 1907, Professor Fisher moved this school to a newly acquired site on several thousand acres of former agricultural land and forest in the small town of Petersham, about 65 miles away in central Massachusetts. Fisher and his students began intensive study of the history, development and management of this landscape and its forests.
Shortly after beginning their first studies, Professor Fisher and his students recognized that an understanding of the history of human activity and natural disturbance was critical to the interpretation of the ecology of the New England landscape and to the management of the region’s forests for conservation, timber, or wildlife value. Consequently, Fisher initiated a series of studies of the remaining old-growth forests in central New England as well as comparative investigations of the post-settlement history of the region and its forests.
In the late 1920s, Professor Fisher and philanthropist Dr. Ernest G. Stillman conceived of an exhibit depicting the land-use history, ecology, conservation and management of New England forests. The culmination of their vision was a series of 23 exquisite dioramas - miniaturized but realistic three-dimensional scenes. Unfortunately, Professor Fisher died in 1934, before the dioramas were completed. The Fisher Museum, dedicated in 1941 in his memory, was constructed at the Harvard Forest in Petersham to exhibit the dioramas and provide a means of conveying the results of research at Harvard Forest to the scientific community and the general public.
These 23 dioramas can be divided into four series:
- Landscape History of Central New England
- Conservation Issues in the History of New England Forests
- Forest Management in Central New England
- Artistry and Construction of the Diorama
Seven of the Harvard Forest dioramas form an historical series that illustrates changes in the New England landscape over the past 300 years depicted at one location. The scene was designed to illustrate all the important transformations of the landscape in the upland area of central Massachusetts since the pre-European-settlement period.
The first of the historical dioramas is a scene depicting the central New England forest prior to European settlement. It is largely based on studies at the old-growth Pisgah forest in southwestern New Hampshire that Harvard Forest acquired in the 1920s. Subsequent scenes, based on Harvard Forest’s studies of post-settlement events, show the progression of this same site through initial clearing, intensive agricultural use, farm abandonment and natural reforestation by white pine, and subsequent stages of natural forest succession to mixed deciduous forest (maple, oak, birch, ash, cherry) when this white pine is harvested. This sequence of human activity and forest change has characterized much of the New England and northeastern North American countryside in the few centuries since European settlement. This legacy of 300 years of change – a major factor shaping many of the details of the modern landscape – is apparent to those who walk the forests today and learn what clues to look for.
In the period since the dioramas were constructed, the trends in forest development illustrated in the final historical model (dated 1930) have continued. Remarkable expanses of maturing forest extend across a densely populated landscape in the northeastern United States. As these forests grow and mature and as dead and decaying wood accumulates on the ground, the forest landscape becomes increasingly natural in appearance and character. With time, too, early successional species (red maple, gray birch, black cherry) decline and more shade-tolerant and long-lived species (sugar maple, red oak, beech, hemlock) increase. Still, the legacy of land-use history persists in the distribution of species and the often abrupt transition between forest types. The stone walls that delineated farm fields and pastures serve as a constant reminder of how this landscape has changed over time.
The ecological and historical interpretation of the details and significance of these transformations has changed little since Fisher and his colleagues designed the dioramas in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, the concepts presented in the dioramas provide the basis for much current understanding and research in ecology, conservation biology, and forest management at the Harvard Forest and beyond.
One of the major lessons that emerges from the dioramas is that in order to understand forests today we need to become deeply knowledgeable about their particular history. This historical perspective shows us that forests have always been characterized by change and carry a strong cultural legacy of past human activity. This understanding should inform predictions of future forest development, as well as attempts to conserve and manage them.
Richard Fisher and his colleagues at the Harvard Forest sought to apply their historical and ecological understanding of New England forests to the conservation and management of this landscape and its woodlands. Consequently, several dioramas highlight conservation issues in the New England countryside.
A large, beautiful, double-width diorama depicting old-growth forest alongside Harvard Pond underscores the important lessons that come from observing natural ecosystems that are little disturbed by human activity. It also strikes a very modern chord – the current widespread interest in locating, studying and protecting remnant old-growth forest stands across the eastern United States. Similarly, a diorama depicting wildlife in the abandoned farm landscape is directly relevant to the interpretation of the dynamics of modern animal populations; it furthers our understanding of the gradual decline of many bird and mammal species that thrive in open agricultural grasslands and shrub lands, and the concurrent return and proliferation of woodland animals.
These dioramas remind us of the history of conservation issues in eastern North America, and also emphasize the continuity of certain conservation concerns through time. These perspectives are valuable in current efforts to protect and preserve our modern landscape.
By coupling the forest history of New England to an understanding of the ecology of the region, the biology of forest trees, and society's demands for natural resources, Professor Fisher developed a comprehensive approach to forest management that he and his students came to call "ecological forestry". Because this approach was based on the study of natural stands and native species and attempted to work with the basic biology of forests in their natural landscape setting, it provides a clear precursor to the "new forestry" and "ecosystem management" approaches that emerged in the late 20th century.
Dioramas in this “silvicultural” series depict both hardwood (deciduous species) and softwood (coniferous species) management, but emphasize softwood management because pines were the dominant and most valuable trees when Professor Fisher and Harvard Forest scientists were developing these ideas. Hardwoods had been in high demand for fuelwood since the late eighteenth century and had been heavily and repeatedly cut. Consequently, they had not grown to large size or high quality in the 1930s, and local markets for hardwood sawtimber were less well developed. Today, hardwoods, especially red oak, are among our most valuable sawtimber species.
Although these dioramas obviously do not include the range of recent advancements in forestry techniques, equipment, or products, they offer great insights into approaches for “reading” a forest stand and managing on a local scale. Thus, they remain important instructional tools that offer insights to individuals interested in forest management and in particular to the owner of small woodland areas.
Artistry and Construction of the Dioramas
The artisans of the Guernsey and Pitman studio of Cambridge, Massachusetts were justifiably proud of their creations and produced a final diorama documenting the techniques they developed to make the remarkably realistic models. Four sections illustrate initial construction through finished model.
The construction of the trees is most remarkable. Each small branch is represented by a thin strand of copper wire. These wires were brought together and wrapped around each other to form progressively larger branches and eventually the trunk. This technique captured both the unique branching pattern of the individual tree species and the correct proportions of the branches to the stem. To model pines, clusters of "needles" were etched from very thin sheets of copper and then soldered to the tips of the wire "branches." Figures, animals, rocks, and other landscape components were sculpted from a mixture of clay and wax.
The attention to realistic detail extended well beyond the actual crafting of each representative tree and scene as the artists blended distinctive and varying cloud patterns with a range of whimsical details, including diverse wildlife species and humans in a variety of poses and engaged in numerous activities. The variety and complexity of these natural and cultural elements yield new observations and insights with each viewing of this remarkable collection of models. The resulting dioramas represent an outstanding artistic and educational achievement.
- A virtual tour of the dioramas is available at the Harvard Forest web site.
- Foster, C.H.W. (Ed.). 1998. Stepping Back to Look Forward: A History of the Massachusetts Forest. Harvard University Press, Harvard Forest, Petersham, MA. ISBN: 0674838300
- Foster, D.R. and J.F. O’Keefe. 2000. New England Forests Through Time: Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN: 0674003446
- Foster, D.R. and J.D. Aber (Eds.). 2004. Forests in Time: The Environmental Consequences of 1,000 Years of Change in New England. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. ISBN: 0300115377