Consider the snail, glistening with slime.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University certainly has, and considered them deeply, and soon you will too.

"They're absolutely gorgeous!" enthused Jennifer Sontchi, the academy's senior director of exhibits and public spaces who is guiding the first restoration ever of the academy's beloved dioramas.

Two of the 37 dioramas, one featuring the takin, a kind of Asian goat or antelope, and another showcasing the lowland gorilla from Africa, have been undergoing restoration, cleaning, and, interestingly, corrections, since early this year.

On Thursday, the enormous glass fronts of the takin and gorilla display cases will be hoisted back into place, and after some additional repair work is done to the area around them, the refreshed and resplendent dioramas will reopen for up-close viewing sometime late this month. The cases had been sealed for 80 years before restoration began in February.

In addition to being cleaned and rejuvenated, the environments within the dioramas will have some original errors corrected and some additions — like glistening snails — situated for verisimilitude.

Detail of small snail – and snail trail. Also note the newly bright blue berries.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Detail of small snail – and snail trail. Also note the newly bright blue berries.

At an early meeting of the restoration team, said Sontchi, someone "asked if there were any snails" — a logical question since snails are everywhere in the takin and gorilla real-life environments.

The answer was a gob-smacking no!

"We added snails to both," said Sontchi.

In the lowland gorilla display two enormous African land snails, as big as a mouse, now ooze their way along the forest floor.

"They lay a large slime trail," said Sontchi. "We added the slime. They're absolutely gorgeous!"

In the environment surrounding the takin, a "cute little white snail," Cathaica przewalskii, now makes its way through the forested mountain terrain.

"It's a smaller, less glamorous story" than the African land snail, Sontchi mused. "But we appreciate all creatures great and small."

Some species, which academy scientists pointed out were not part of the actual native habitats, have been swapped out by restorers. An improper orchid has been replaced in the gorilla display. A butterfly resting on a leaf in the same display has also been reconsidered and removed.

"It was a beautiful butterfly, but it was totally the wrong butterfly," said Sontchi.

The beautiful butterfly has been replaced by an African giant swallowtail butterfly, equally beautiful and "as big as your hand," said Sontchi.

Flora in the cases has also come under scrutiny.

Some plants, like the lowland orchid, were replaced by more accurate representatives of the specific environment. But others were, in a sense, discovered beneath decades of dust and grime.

Lauren Duguid, with the Academy’s exhibits department works on foliage in the takin diorama.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Lauren Duguid, with the Academy’s exhibits department works on foliage in the takin diorama.

These are plants (and other small creatures, like birds and insects) that did not even warrant mention in the old dioramas. They were uncredited players, stage furniture supporting the celebrity animals.

In that context, the marble berry plant resting anonymously in the gorilla display proved a revelation.

"It's a little, low ground plant with clusters of blue glassy shiny berries," said Sontchi. "It is one of the brightest colors in nature." But the academy's marble berries were more dull gray than intense blue.

Not anymore. They now sparkle intensely from the forest floor.

What of the main animals on display, the takin and the gorillas?

The takin diorama at the Academy of Natural Sciences, newly restored, awaiting only the glass in front and information panels.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The takin diorama at the Academy of Natural Sciences, newly restored, awaiting only the glass in front and information panels.

"The takin — the restoration of these animals was amazing," said Sontchi. "All the specimens came out. The before and after of the pelts and skins and eyes was unbelievable."

Taxidermist George Dante worked on the specimens. He modeled the takin pelts on the originals in storage at the academy, which are unaltered by UV light damage and grime. Before restoration, the takin were gray.

"They're golden!" said Sontchi. "The taxidermy was a major surprise. Amazing, amazing work."

An African giant swallowtail butterfly (right) inside the gorilla diorama at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The original diorama had the wrong kind of butterfly on the leaf, so conservators corrected it during the restoration.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
An African giant swallowtail butterfly (right) inside the gorilla diorama at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The original diorama had the wrong kind of butterfly on the leaf, so conservators corrected it during the restoration.

Many of these changes involve decisions on the part of the academy to seek fealty to the original environment, not the original display, she noted. The restoration team decided it would make no sense to replace an incorrect butterfly with another incorrect butterfly.

At the same time, the academy realized that the exhibits may have been conceived to show off star animals, like gorillas. But in fact entire ecosystems are on display. Gorillas don't exist in isolation. They are part of an environmental web. That's what led to the discovery and highlighting of the brilliantly blue marble berry.

When the digital labels and interpretive materials are installed later this fall, the gorilla display, for example, will still feature those extraordinary creatures. But it will make clear that gorillas — "charismatic megafauna," as Sontchi terms them — are part of an environment.

"The display is about the lowland rain forest and place, not just one animal," she said. "It is important for us to identify the other players and to identify the dioramas as an ecosystem."

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Staff photographer Tom Gralish followed the restoration process for several months. Explore his photo essay here.