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Carnegie Unveils New Version Of Controversial Diorama

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has again updated a popular but controversial diorama depicting two lions attacking a man on a camel.

Gretchen Baker is director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Timothy Evans
Gretchen Baker is director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The life-sized, antique diorama has been prominently exhibited at the museum for more than 120 years; it currently sits in the Carnegie’s grand entry hall, not far from the museum gift shop. However, last year, after some visitors said they found the scene of violence against a dark-skinned man to be traumatic, the museum first temporarily covered the display, then curtained it off for optional viewing, with explanatory signage.

On Friday, the museum took the next step in what it calls a process to determine the permanent fate of the problematic diorama. The curtains are off the big glass case, and it’s ringed with new signage.

“Please proceed with care,” reads one sign. “This exhibit contains cultural stereotypes and shows a violent act against a person of color. We want to acknowledge its harmful impact. … We are actively working to find appropriate long-term solutions so that everyone feels safe and welcome at the museum.”

Other signage provides historical context that was unknown to generations of museum visitors, including material noting factual inaccuracies in the diorama; the role of colonialism in the history of museums; and an acknowledgement that the head of the rider figure is built around a real, though unidentified, human skull.

Museum director Gretchen Baker said she was aware of the controversy surrounding the diorama when she took the job, and that it was among the first things Carnegie staffers addressed with her when she started work, just this past April.

Rather than simply removing the diorama entirely, she chose to further engage the public first, in hopes that the display might be used to educate visitors about the role colonialism and racism have played in museums, which have long expropriated artifacts and more from other cultures.

“I want to try to figure out how to be a place, and how to have our galleries be a place, where we can look critically at our institutional history and not just put that back in the collections where no one sees it and we don’t have the conversations,” said Baker, whose 25-year career most recently included serving as managing director for museum experience at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, in Los Angeles.

However, Baker said, the fate of the diorama is an open question. “As a museum, we do feel the value of having object-based discussions, having these conversations around real things,” she said. “But this may not be the object to do that with. … There may be other objects or other ways we can have the conversation in the galleries that would be more productive, more participatory.”

The diorama was created by French taxidermists Èdouard and Jules Verreaux and debuted at the 1867 Paris International Exhibition. It was popular enough that the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, acquired it in 1869 and displayed it for decades, according to the Carnegie's new signage. The exhibit also appeared at the Centennial Exposition, in 1876, in Philadelphia. In 1898, the American Museum sold it to the then-fledgling Carnegie, for $50. “It has been one of the museum’s most popular exhibits ever since,” says the new signage.

The diorama, long known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions,” was renamed “Lions Attacking a Dromedary” after the 2017 refurbishment during which the presence of the skull was first discovered.

The Carnegie calls the diorama an example of the “Orientalist” art popular during the 19th century, which fed Western audiences lurid scenes from purportedly exotic locales. France had extensive colonial holdings in North Africa, where the diorama is set. Baker emphasizes that the diorama is an artwork, not a scientific display. Its inaccuracies include the clothing of the courier, which draws from multiple North African cultures.

Baker said she was shocked to learn that the figure of the rider contained human remains. However, such usages were not unheard of in the mid-19th century. Èdouard and Jules Verreaux, the museum’s signage states, were known to rob the graves of indigenous people for use in their taxidermy creations. In 1830, Jules Verreaux stole the body of a Tswana warrior whose funeral he had witnessed, and preserved and posed it for display. The body was exhibited in a Spanish museum until 1997, after which it was repatriated for burial in Botswana.

The Carnegie is working on a plan to remove the skull from the diorama and store it in “a sanctuary space in our care,” says the signage. Baker said the skull has not been removed already partly because doing so would require destroying the head of the courier figure, and necessitate deciding how — or whether — to recreate it.

Baker said she knows that the diorama elicits strong reactions from both those who view the diorama positively – and consider the courier heroic – and those who feel traumatized by it.

The museum is currently soliciting feedback on the exhibit through a QR code displayed on the diorama’s glass. Later this summer, a consultant that does inclusion and equity work will begin surveying museum visitors about the exhibit, and focus groups will follow, Baker said.

“This is really an opening up of the museum in a lot of ways, which is messy, but absolutely essential right now,” Baker said.

The skull in the diorama is not the only human remains on display at the Carnegie; other remains are visible in Egypt Hall, for instance. Baker said the museum has a human-remains task force which is working on a plan for salvaging the skull from the sculpture, perhaps by this fall. (Exhibitions of the remains of humans who didn't have the chance to grant or deny permission are not as rare as you might imagine; in 2019, for instance, the Carnegie Science Center hosted the touring show "Mummies of the World.")

Regardless of whether the lion diorama remains on public display, Baker said, “I do not want it to stay where it’s currently located.”

An exhibit that raises so many questions about how museums should operate shouldn’t be among the very first things visitors see, she said. Another option might be relocating the diorama to a less prominent space where it can be better contextualized, she said.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: