The Panorama is an American cultural treasure, a 360-degree-view exhibit that embodies a historic first in the representation of nature for the public. As part of the official Kansas Pavilion in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it was unique and revolutionary in depicting, for the first time, mounted groups of North American mammals in their natural surroundings. Lewis Lindsay Dyche created this exhibit on the cusp of growing scientific awareness of ecological systems and the need to conserve natural resources for the better good.
From May to October of 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago drew more than 27 million people to Chicago. As many as 12,000 of those visitors per day stopped to see the Panorama of North American Mammals. This unparalleled collection of 121 mammals included deer, elk, mountain goats, bison, a grizzly bear, two fighting bull moose, and a host of smaller animals. They were displayed in groupings and surroundings that mimicked the natural settings of several regions across North America at the time of early autumn. Dyche’s work received rave reviews from many who saw it, including many of his peers in the field of natural history.
Scientific American contended the Kansas pavilion was “the finest group of mounted animals they have seen, and that there is nothing like it in the world.” Using similar language, the Book of the Fair, a three-volume souvenir guidebook, hailed Kansas for exhibiting “the best specimens of taxidermy displayed in the Exposition and one of the best in the world.”
Some Kansans, however, were less than thrilled with this presentation of Dyche’s artistry. With one-third of the available space in the Kansas pavilion given over to the KU professor’s animal collection, many Kansas newspapers editorialized against the exhibit because it had nothing to do with the Sunflower State per se, as Bill Sharp and Peggy Sullivan have noted in their 1990 biography of Dyche, The Dashing Kansan.
Dyche had learned his craft from William T. Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian (then often referred to as the National Museum) in Washington, DC. Hornaday taught Dyche the art of the painted backdrop to best depict animals in their natural habitat. While Dyche was preparing the Panorama of North American Mammals for the Exposition, Hornaday wrote him advising “the proper amount of paint will give your exhibit an out-door and Wild West effect that will make it simply stunning.”
Dyche, a natural showman who was only beginning to come into his own, took Hornaday’s suggestion a step further. With the help of E.D. Eames, W.W. Wyland, and Charlie Saunders, he constructed a 20-foot-high wooden framework for a papier-mâché cliff for the mountain sheep and mountain goats he had collected in the Rocky Mountains. Because of problems with thieves lurking around the fair grounds, Dyche constructed living quarters inside the papier-mâché cliff with a “secret entrance” under the rocks so he could be on-site to protect his animals 24 hours a day.
The success of the Panorama prompted the interest of several potential buyers, who tried to persuade Dyche to sell part or all of his collection, but Dyche declined. He also dissuaded efforts by others to recruit him out of Kansas, though these offers must have been tempting.
Eventually, the Kansas Board of Regents announced that the state of Kansas “owes it to herself to retain the invaluable services of Professor Dyche, and . . . to build up a natural history collection that can never be equaled in the world.”
Dyche remained at KU until 1909, when he obtained a leave-of-absence to serve as state game warden for Kansas, a position he held at the time of his death in 1915. Meanwhile, in 1902, his collection received a permanent home on the hill when Dyche Hall was built especially as the University’s Natural History Museum. A version of the exhibit that first wowed visitors in Chicago over a century ago still amazes the more than 100,000 people who annually visit KU’s most popular museum.
—History adapted from The Dashing Kansan, by William Sharp and Peggy Sullivan (Kansas City, Missouri, Harrow Books: 1990), KUHistory.com and Dyche Hall: University of Kansas Natural History Museum, 1903-2003, compiled by Carol Holstead and Barbara Watkins (Lawrence, Kansas, Historic Mt. Oread: 2003).