FAQ #1: How Do You Start a Diorama?

Today we are starting a new series in Mewsings, answering questions that visitors to our museum have asked. Eventually, we will make a tab for FAQs on our website. If you have a question that we haven’t covered, email us at info@civilwartails.com and we will consider adding it to the list!

The FAQ for this Mewsing is how do we start a diorama?

Our first step in making a diorama is picking a story. Generally speaking, as we read a book on an aspect of the Civil War, we will come across a story and think, “That would make a cool diorama,” or “Wow, we should totally make a diorama of that.” Stories that catch our interest usually involve bravery, heroism, or desperation. Sometimes a story is humorous, or sometimes we want to show a particular item of interest, such as Prof. Thaddeus Lowe’s observation balloon Intrepid (that scene is currently in storage, especially since a mouse chewed up the basket on the balloon!).

Once we have decided to make a diorama of a particular event, we look at maps in books on the subject to see exactly what the area involves. How much space does the regiment cover? Is the enemy close enough for us to include them on the diorama? What buildings or topographical features are involved (hills, woods, streams, fences, walls)?

2019-06-22 20190620_151231The next consideration is scale. For a small scene, such as “Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge,” we could use a larger scale because the scene would not involve a lot of figures. A scale of 2-inch-tall cats is okay if there are only sixty soldiers involved. But it would be impossible to use cats of that size for a to-scale diorama with 3,000 soldiers, such as “The Fate of Gettysburg,” unless you have a warehouse to fit it in!

Once we decide on the scale, we calculate the ideal size and, well, the practical size.

First, we calculate the size we would ideally want the diorama to be. Take “The Boys Are Still There” (Little Round Top), for example. We knew it would be a large diorama, rivaling “The Fate of Gettysburg” in size. But how big? This is a section of the topographical map that we use (similar to the one found here), with our planning marks drawn in pencil (the colored lines are photo-shopped in for the purposes our Mewsing).

2021-06-19 topo map marked

The red lines show initial markings that would allow us to include space for the Confederates advancing up the west slope, the entire 15th Alabama to the south, and perhaps even Company B of the 20th Maine, who ended up separated and on their own, due to a misunderstanding (red circle). Early in our calculations, we realized that this would result in an enormous diorama, so we had to trim the area down. We finally settled on the green box. This worked out to exactly 11 feet long, fitting the Signal Corps station on the north end of the hill, and the 15th Alabama to the south.

We make our dioramas in sections that can fit through doorways, so the next question was if the diorama should be 2-doorways or 3-doorways wide. With two, we could fit the Confederates on the west slope and the left wing of the 20th Maine on the east slope of the spur (the blue lines show the section breaks). Adding another section (the purple lines) would mean we could have the right end of the 15th Alabama (over 2/3 of the regiment was facing the 20th Maine’s left wing; red ovals), but it would mean a lot of blank space on the north end of the diorama, so it wasn’t really worth the extra space. So, our current diorama measures 11’ x 4’8” and fits nearly everything we wanted to portray.

Then, we take into consideration whether we are limited by the size we have available. For “The Fate of Gettysburg,” we were limited by how much floor-space we had in the room where we could set it up. So, given the space available and the scale of the cats (which was as small as we could make them at the time), we had to cut off a portion of the Copse of Trees  in order to fit the Angle of the stone wall onto the opposite side of the diorama (red markings below).

2021-06-19 Angle

After we have settled on the size and finalized what we are portraying, the planning phase is done, and it’s time to move on to making the diorama!

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