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Panorama Methodology – Roots of Living History and Virtual Reality

Panorama and diorama were high tech and popular in 19th century. In this paper I try to explain why and what was inherited and can be traced to later methodologies such as living history and virtual reality.

How do museums reach people? That is the question! That has puzzled museums since the 19th century and one way to address the issue has been to analyse what we mean by “people”. Do the museums see people as visitors, guests, users, participants, consumers or something else? This approach I would call the ideological perspective. Another perspective comes from the practical side where the main issue is made operational in the sub-question: What triggers people to engage one way or another with a museum experience?

This is where historical front runners of outreach such as panorama and diorama methodology become central to understand tendencies in the popularity of some museums even today. The main steps in this development may briefly be described as follows.

From the times of ancient Egypt all the way up to the 17th century we have examples from all over the world where a long tapestry in textile, paper, wood or even stone tells a story from one end to the other. In Europe the Bayeux tapestry depicting the story up to, during and after the battle of Hastings in 1066 is maybe the most famous example of this kind of storytelling.

There may have been earlier attempts but in 1787 the Irish painter Robert Barker successfully presented the first panorama which was a panoramic view from Carlton Hill in central Edinburgh in Scotland.

The same year Barker opened a building in which he could show the panorama in Edinburgh itself and the building he called cyclorama. You also find specially designed buildings for the purpose of showing panoramas called rotundas. The panorama method became extremely popular from then on and during the 19th century many artists toured in almost all major cities in Europe – especially in France and United Kingdom – and North America – especially United States – and showed their panoramas. The medium was primarily used to show landscapes, cities or a historical event – the later normally a battle or a surrender after a historical battle. The battles could be historical in the sense that the historical event actually took place many years, maybe centuries ago or it could be a historical event which was still a living memory. Pierre Prévost in France could offer his public to experience the famous evacuation of the English from Toulon in 1793 during the French revolution already a few years after and the meeting of emperors Napoleon and Alexander at Niemen in 1807 could be experienced as a panorama in 1809. The Napoleonic battle of Wagram in 1809 was depicted already 1810 and actually visited by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. In 1814 Pierre Prévost rapidly produced a panorama which showed the arrival of the king Louis XVIII to Calais. The show of this panorama canvas was probably very short-lived as Napoleon interrupted the restoration of the French kingdom for the famous 100 days. But these examples demonstrate how the panorama medium was used a popular presenter of important current events.

The current political events took over popularity but even the popularity of panoramas with city- or landscape views illustrate the same point as the popular interest was directed towards local well-known scenery. I Switzerland they wanted to see landscapes with mountains, I London visitors to the popular rotunda in Leicester Street wanted to experience London views. In front of the panorama paintings were often placed objects related to the painted motive which helped to create an experience of depth in the painting itself. From 1822 the panorama had competition from a method with the similar ambition. Louis Daguerre would some twenty years later would be a pioneer in developing photography. In 1822 he collaborated with and Charles-Marie Bouton who had been student of the famous painter Jacques-Louis David in developing the diorama.

The diorama was the opposite of the panorama as the spectator would not have to move around to see the whole scenery but instead it was four large screens or paintings which moved around the public, so that within 12-15 minutes the spectators had seen all four. Instead of having different related objects in front of the paintings the show was accompanied by sound – many times it was music which provided atmosphere. During the 19th century there were in United States and United Kingdom examples of combining the two methodologies as moving panorama.

The painted images of contemporary views were mostly compensated by photographs after 1850 but for historical or natural history depictions painted images and backgrounds kept its position on the market longer. In Stockholm the Biological Museum opened in 1893 with impressive paintings as dioramas building backgrounds for stuffed wild animals. The paintings were created by very well-known and established natural painters like Bruno Liljefors. That particular museum is still there almost unchanged even though nowadays more a museum over diagram methodology than a natural history museum. Only few original panorama and diagram images are otherwise preserved in Europe, but in Hague in the Netherlands, Wroclaw in Poland and Pleven in Bulgaria there are preserved good examples. In North America and in Australia are preserved other good examples. The methods and technologies like panorama, diorama and moving panorama all became increasingly obsolete when real moving pictures – movies – became a reality at the end of the 19th century and the rapidly growing infrastructure of cinemas in the first decades of the 120th century.

The popularity and the need to reach real people

The panorama's rise in popularity was a result of its accessibility in that people did not need a certain level of education to enjoy the views it offered. Accordingly, the public from across the social scale flocked to experience the panoramas and dioramas throughout Europe.[1]

While easy access was an attraction of the panorama, some people believed it was nothing more than a parlor trick bent on deceiving its public audience. Designed to have a lingering effect upon the viewer, the panorama was placed in the same category as propaganda of the period, which was also seen as deceitful.[2] People were unable to distinguish where they were: in the rotunda or at the scene they were seeing. The panorama was criticized for the simplicity of its illusion. Critics saw so many people – elite and otherwise – fooled by something so simple.[3]

The Swiss panorama expert Bernhard Comment has argued that the enormous paintings filled a hole in the lives of those who lived during the nineteenth century. The masses needed "absolute dominance" and the illusion offered by the panorama gave them a sense of organization and control. Despite the power it wielded, the panorama detached audiences from the scene they viewed, replacing reality and encouraging them to watch the world rather than experience it.[4] It was providing an imagined experience like a visualized dream for the many as did the novels for the readers in the that century.

The epoque in Europe of the panoramas and dioramas coincide with what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm labeled the long 19th century from the Great French Revolution until the breakout of the First World War. This is the period when popular democracy makes its entrance in Europe and go through phases with different class formations including political awareness and struggle for power. This happens in a period when mass communication was carried out mainly through newspapers with no or few illustrations creating information control within national borders.[5] Nationalism was the solution of the day to neutralize class struggles.[6]

The panorama methodology made it possible to mass communicate experiences through visualization. Of course, it was popular and of course there was a popular and political demand. The supply side had wonderful preconditions throughout this period. Like the newspapers editors the panoramas had their producers and they were of course dependent on the demand in the market for their productions.

Therefore, we do in the long 19th century see many depictions of battles which were supposed to foster patriotism. It is neither strange that the natural science which the same period raised to predominant status used the methods of panoramas and dioramas in the first generation of natural museums. The natural sciences represented the ideal for all academic disciplines including popular representations of academic knowledge.[7]

It may today be difficult to really comprehend the enormous popularity of the panoramas in the 19th century in Europe and elsewhere. It can be argued that it is comparable to the popularity of film in cinemas and television in the 20th century and the continuation in YouTube or another internet offers in the 21st century.

If we accept this analogy, we may also realize how and why the panorama methodology was interesting for museums – and especially history museums – as the museums became important tools for nation building and identity production. In Northern Europe it especially easy to see the direct influence. As famous painters were involved in the early development of the panorama methodology through letting producers exploit their talent we see that experiences with dioramas and panoramas were the direct inspiration for both Arthur Hazelius when he created the open air museum Skansen in Sweden for Bernhard Olsen when he shaped the Danish Frilandsmuseet a decade later.[8]

The first generation of open air museums were established in Scandinavia from the 1890ies until the end of the First World War:


Year    Name                                Country

1891    Skansen                           Sweden

1992     Kulturen                           Sweden

1894     Funäsdalens Fornpark     Sweden

1901     Dansk Folkemuseum         Denmak

1901     Jönköpings stadspark        Sweden

1902     Norsk Folkemuseum          Norway

1904     Maihaugen                         Norway

1909     Fölisöns friluftsmuseum     Finland (Russian duchy)

1912     Jamtli                                 Sweden

1913     Murberget                          Sweden

1914     Sverresborg                       Norway

1914     Den gamle By                    Denmark

1914     Rammaparken                   Sweden

1918     Fredriksdal                         Sweden

1919     Gamlia                               Sweden


Outside the Nordic countries there were opened this kind of museums in Konigsberg in Ost Prussia in 1913 and the same year there were plans to open in Arnhem in the Netherlands but the war came in between and the museum which was to become the national open air museum of the Netherlands opened as the war ended in 1918.[9]

The open air museum became a huge success as they presented historical environments in three dimensional full scale where people could walk in and out of house, around them and even in some of the museums look at people or dolls in historical costumes and in the farm environments also look at the animals and vegetation of the place. People were going directly into history – they thought! It was very effective as an experience and learning exercise. The open air museums became popular not least also because they attracted people from different layers of society. This kind of museums were ideal as meeting places where all visitors could share what they were to believe was their shared common roots.[10]

In the 1960ies and 1970ies it was the open air museums – engaged in cultural history or in archaeological times – who came up with the first examples of living history and re-enactment. Role play in historical costumes can take many different forms. It may be anything from people who for days engage their entire life in a different time and “play” together with others. These are often amateurs who are really dedicated and in reality, often specialists in their chosen time and place. But it may also be professionals in a museum who engage with the guests to the museum and seduce these into another time and place in history.

Living history has grown rapidly in the last 50 years and from being a very special and seldom academically respected method of engagement has today become mainstream as almost all cultural history and archaeological museums today use living history in some form frequently in their professional work.[11]

Today living history exists in many different forms and within and outside strict regulations or institutionalized – and not only museums uses the method of living history. “Living” has become popular as a play form for adults as much as for children. It includes both settings historically inspired and phantasies. Even virtual reality through IT-means in museums basically has the re-creation of historical environments and situations as it’s base. It is all done for the sake of making an interpretation of history come to live and giving the participant the opportunity to take part in history. Making people sense and feel ownership to the past is as much the aim of these methodologies today as it was more than two centuries ago when the panorama method war first presented. It is still about a popular need and demand as much as about fostering identities.


[1] Markman Ellis. “Spectacles within doors: Panoramas of London in the 1790s.” Romanticism 2008, Vol. 14 Issue 2. Modern Language Association International Bibliography Database.

[2] Sophie Thomas. ‘Making Visible: The Diorama, the Double and the (Gothic) subject.’ in “Gothic Technologies: Visuality in the Romantic Era.” Ed. Robert Miles. 2005. Praxis Series. 31 Jan. 2010.…

[3] Markman Ellis, op.cit.

[4] Bernard Comment, “The Painted Panorama”. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.

[5] Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities. Reflexions on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism”, 2nd edition, Verso – London and New York 1991.

[6] Henrik Zipsane, “European Integration as a Challenge for Open-Air Museums”, in Jan Carstens and Katarina Frost (ed.); Creating Museums – 50 Years of Association of European Open-Air Museums”, Vaxman -Münster 2016 and Stefan Bohman, "Historia, museer och nationalism", (Swedish: History, Museums and Nationalism), Carlssons bokförlag – Stockholm 1997.

[7] Palle Ove Christiansen, ”Kulturhistorie som opposition.Träk af forskellige fagtraditioner”(Danish: Cultural History as opposition –Tendencies in different Academic Traditions), Munksgaard - Copenhagen 2000.

[8] Bjarne Stoklund, “International Exebitions and the New Museum Concept in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century”, in ”Ethnologia Scandinavica” – Copenhagen 1993.

[9] Sten Rentzhog “Open air museums. The history and future of a visionary idea”, Carlssons Förlag & Jamtli Förlag – Östersund 2007.

[10] Stefan Bohman, op.cit.

[11] Janet Coles & Paul Armstrong, “Living history: learning through re-enactment”, paper presented at the 38th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 2-4 July 2008, University of Edinburgh and Ebbe Westergren & Gustav Wollentz (ed.): “The Time Travel Method – in the Service of Society and its Development”, Kalmar läns museum – Kalmar 2018.

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