Cade Martin Brings Whimsy and Surprise to the Reimagining of Museum Dioramas

With the extraordinary opportunity to work on projects with the Smithsonian and Smithsonian Magazine through the years, it’s safe to say that Cade Martin could find a second career as a museum curator or tour guide. Having photographed artifacts from Lincoln’s post-assassination hat to Miss Piggy wearing The Hope Diamond, Cade has documented a thing or to of significance throughout his career. Inspiration hits at unexpected times, and for Cade, it’s a necessity to run with his ideas as soon as possible. What follows is a tour of Cade’s Diorama collection and the inspiration behind it.

You have spent a bit of time in and around museums since childhood, appreciating history – the people and situations that have come before us. Tell us about what inspired you to create Dioramas? Do you think dioramas are a “lost art?”

I grew up in an artistic community surrounded by painters, sculptors, and printmakers. My parents dragged me to museums from the time I was small.

Professionally, I am fortunate to work with the Smithsonian on many projects over the years, and it is always like being back in 3rd grade working on a school project.

Many of my personal projects spawn from stumbling onto something I’ve heard about or want to know more about and seizing an opportunity. In this case, I was working on a project with the Smithsonian. We arrived early one morning and as we were walking through the back corridors, I saw a tiny diorama. It immediately had its hooks in me – both the nostalgia of how we present history on a public scale, as well as some of those early school projects, where we created dioramas to interpret what we were learning about in the world.

I dug around a bit – and quickly found out about the “diorama dilemma.” Museums began constructing dioramas more than a century ago, mainly out of a desire to return to nature following the Industrial Revolution. Today, dioramas are as endangered as many of the animals and scenes they portray. The proliferation of TV sets, and now with the immediate availability of visual content online, museums have struggled over what to do with their seemingly old-fashioned dioramas.

Some museums have replaced their centuries-old displays with interactive and multimedia features. Others have left dioramas alone and allowed them to fall into disrepair. In some scenarios, the old dioramas have been scrapped, ransacked for parts, and relegated to storage or the garbage. I’m not sure I’d call it a lost art – instead, optimistically, I’d call it a creatively evolving one. 

Chasing characters is something you inherently do, it seems, every moment of every day. Your love of films and comics leads you to create scenarios in your head and then translate your thoughts into photography. Each photo in your Diorama project tells a story, leaving the viewer to imagine along with you, and perhaps finish it for themselves. Tell us about the thinking behind the first two images in your project: Why Gorillas and why dogs? Is there a reason why neither photo has an official title?

I love character and characters. Dioramas make you feel something, much like a good photograph. The history – how did we come to this moment? The mystery – what happens next, where are we going? Photograph as diorama, diorama as photograph – I like that there is layering to these questions. With any great character, you want to know more, what’s next, what will they do. I wanted these images to invoke that same curiosity and sense of adventure. 

The animals, to me, tie the images to the dioramas of old, exhibiting the natural world, illustrating and revealing a habitat. Even in reimagining the diorama, I wanted to be true to that element. 

As for titles, I’ve never been one for titles or statements; I like the image to stand alone and let the viewer come up with their interpretation.

Why did you choose New York’s Natural History Museum as your muse?

I live in Washington, DC, and work with the Smithsonian a lot, a partnership that I love. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History closed two diorama halls, reopening them with video screens, interactive features, and stand-alone specimens where the dioramas had been. Out of necessity and convenience, I went to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York – one of the giants in the museum world. 

People have come to know your style of shooting and that you have an endless imagination. #surprisemecade has become a hashtag request, and you have not disappointed fans by adding a touch of whimsy in post-production. Can you share any discussions that took place in post, in the name of creative adventures?

I try not to be rigid on how I envision the final product. I like to leave room for location-inspiration and collaboration to lead me a bit. For this project, I worked with Gold Dog Communications, and it was a team effort. Flexibility, comfort level, and openness were vital as we ping-ponged ideas back and forth, settling collaboratively on the right marriage of location, mood, and story.

Making images that convey a unique personality and character is the best kind of challenge. It’s not always an easy task to show something new and eye-catching – especially when dioramas have roots in the past. These images are grounded in the natural beauty of dioramas. We want them to pop, with a wink that draws the eye back for a fresh look at a familiar presentation.

Is there an end-goal with is project? Have you thought about other uses for this work?

As for all of my personal projects, I do the work for myself. That’s not to say that I don’t want people to see it – I certainly like to share my personal work on my website, and social media, because it does add to the full picture of my unique vision and who I am as a creative. I’m happy if people enjoy the work, but I do it selfishly and uncontained. 

Follow Cade on Instagram to see his imagery, the result of him chasing characters and character at every opportunity.

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