The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has removed the life-sized diorama known to generations of visitors as “Arab Courier Attacked By Lions.”
The exhibit dramatically depicted a man mounted on a camel fending off two big cats, presumably somewhere in the North African desert. It’s a fictional scene, and not terribly accurate culturally or scientifically. But the exhibit has been on almost continuous display since 1899, and the male lion’s gaping jaws, and the rider’s terrified expression, imprinted themselves on countless schoolchildren.
But the depiction of a dark-skinned man under attack also upset many patrons, especially visitors of color. So several weeks ago, the museum quietly curtained off the big glass case, which stood in a prominent spot in the institution’s grand entrance hall.
“Because there were people who responded strongly in a negative way to the diorama, and these are people of color, who are people who have not been taken into account perhaps fully in our museum, we wanted to be careful in listening and discussing and choosing a path forward,” said Stephen Tonsor, the museum’s interim director.
However, Tonsor said, the museum does plan to eventually put the diorama back in view, with some changes. It will be placed so only visitors who choose to see it can do so, and will include explanatory signage for context.
The taxidermy sculpture, which is French in origin, dates to the 1860s. It was purchased and imported to Pittsburgh by Andrew Carnegie himself. However, it’s also been the subject of controversy, in particular since it was refurbished three years ago.
That’s when researchers discovered that the head of the “courier” figure contained a real, if unidentified, human skull. The museum also held a public forum to discuss issues of cultural sensitivity around the diorama, which after all was created by artists from France, a colonial power in the very region the diorama depicted. After the refurbishment, the diorama was retitled “Lions Attacking A Dromedary.”
Tonsor said discussions about the exhibit came further to the fore during the recent national wave of racial-justice protests. The museum decided to cover up the piece after fielding complaints from some museum visitors and holding further discussions with both patrons and staff, he said.
The courier figure’s costume draws on multiple Arab cultures, to name one inaccuracy. Tonsor has also noted that while the diorama shows the male lion attacking the courier, in reality it’s female lions that do the hunting. (The female lion lies crumpled on the ground, presumably having been shot by the courier. Barbary lions, by the way, are now extinct.)
Still, Tonsor said the diorama has merit as a work of art, and deserves to be available for viewing.
“What we want to do is use this as a learning opportunity,” he said.
“We don’t want to be prescriptive and tell people how they ought to see it. We do want whoever does sees the diorama … to understand that there really is a broad variety of experiences that people bring to this, and reactions that they have to it, and we want to take our time making sure that we manage this in the long run in the best possible way,” he said.
“As an intermediate measure, we covered it while we work through that,” he said.