Hastings Museum: A Great Escape Diorama Backgrounds |
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Hastings Museum’s dioramas are considered museum-quality pieces themselves! They’re all hand crafted…every leaf, every stone, every blade of grass.

More than 500,000 leaves were created for Hastings Museum dioramas! They were made from molds cast from real leaf specimens.

More than 500,000 leaves were created for Hastings Museum dioramas! They were made from molds cast from real leaf specimens.

Long before the Museum building was dedicated in 1939, preparation for the detailed dioramas began.

The time consuming task of creating foliage for the displays yielded more than 500,000 leaves made of wire, wax, and cotton! Hired as the technical assistant and staff artist, Don Karr supervised six women who were employed to make the plants.

Karr’s first task was to make molds by casting real leaf specimens in plaster. The molds were given to workers who wrapped wire in cotton and placed it in the mold for the stem. A thin layer of cotton was then placed in the mold to hold the wax. Once the form was released from the mold, workers trimmed the edges and repeated the process until they could make clusters of leaves to add to plant stems.

Diorama backgrounds also play a key role in setting the scene, flowing seamlessly from the leaves, plants and animals in the foreground, with the paintings matching trees, shrubbery and even the birds and animals.

Many of Hastings Museum’s backgrounds were painted by Iris Daugherty Nunley.

Iris Daughtery Nunley painted many backgrounds at Hastings Museum

Iris Daugherty Nunley, a Hastings Museum artist who painted many diorama backgrounds.

A student at Hastings College majoring in language art, Nunley was notified by her instructor that Hastings Museum’s founder Albert Brooking was looking for an art student to work at Hastings Museum.

When they met, Nunley informed Brooking that she had only worked in pencil and charcoal and had never done anything to scale that he was looking. He persuaded her to try because if she could do it in black and white, she could certainly do it in color, and if she did well on small scale projects she could do well on large scale ones as well.

For a wage of $25 a week, Nunley painted the backgrounds of the dioramas, mounted animal skins and other exhibit construction related tasks. Although she had never seen some of the landscapes she painted, her work on the dioramas is considered some of the best in the country by many museum professionals today.

Nunley worked at the Museum until 1947, leaving to attend art school in New York. She later worked at a museum in Alaska before returning to Nebraska where she did art work for the University of Nebraska State Museum, the Nebraska State Historical Society, and additional projects for the Hastings Museum.

She and her husband, Roger Nunley, lived in Hastings. Iris died on July 6th, 2017, at the age of 93.