The Lion Attacking a Dromedary diorama is a piece of 19th century French taxidermal art. It has been on display at Carnegie Museums since 1899. It presents a dramatic scene of a courier riding a dromedary—a one-humped camel—engaged in bloody conflict with two lions. A female lion is already dead, and the courier is in an active fight with a pouncing male lion.
The display of this diorama is controversial.
On one hand, it has been a captivating attraction for many visitors for decades. In a 2015 marketing poll with about 10,000 responses, it was voted a most favorite object in the natural history collection, second only to Dippy—the iconic dinosaur statue outside the museum. Regular visits to see the “exciting” diorama are, for some families, cherished multi-generation traditions.
On the other hand, this diorama is not an accurate depiction of North African natural history or culture. In 2017, the museum sponsored a public symposium and published a small book in association with the relocation and relabeling of the diorama. That project identified Lion Attacking a Dromedary as a piece of Orientalist art that presented a “stereotyped, colonialist misrepresentation of North Africa and the Middle East.”
Despite the changes in the text associated with the diorama in 2017, both visitors and staff have shared that the diorama is painful to witness, especially in its new location. It is placed near the museum entrance and physically difficult to avoid. The museum has received complaints that the diorama feels racially discriminatory and unwelcoming, and the museum has received questions about the ethics and purpose of its presentation in a natural history museum.
There are few human subjects included in the museum’s dioramas, and the only human subjects represented are persons of color. Lion Attacking a Dromedary portrays a man of color in a violent confrontation with lions. Portrayals of physical violence against people of color, like in this diorama, arguably perpetuate their dehumanization, and desensitize viewers to racial violence. The figure in this diorama includes human remains from subjects of unknown origin. He is described as Arab, but the costume combines elements from different geographic places and peoples, predominantly Tuareg or Imohag culture, who do not identify as Arab.
Learning from History
As a natural history educational institution dedicated to sharing biological and cultural science based in contemporary knowledge and ethical standards, and as a public museum dedicated to creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all people, the museum’s display of this diorama raises challenging questions, and offers an important opportunity for reflection.
In May 2020, in the context of widespread national and global attention to systemic racism in the United States—including calls for institutions like Carnegie Museums to do more to directly combat racism—the museum felt a sense of urgency to take action to address outstanding complaints and ethical concerns about the diorama. In June 2020, the diorama was temporarily covered with a drape while the museum considers the future of this diorama in light of our institutional vision and mission.
What is this object? What is its relevance to natural history? Is it based in empirical observation, or the imagination of an artist? Who was the artist and what was his relationship to North Africa? What were the social-political conditions within which this object was created?
Today, what are people’s different interpretations of it and experiences in viewing it? What can we learn about cultural bias and power, stereotyping, and differential race-based experiences in the United States by talking with each other about this diorama and its long-term display? What can we learn about the history of French, British, and American imperialism in North Africa and the Middle East and how that is relevant to ongoing geopolitical struggles today?
What can we learn about the lions? What was the relationship of Indigenous people in North Africa to lions? Why is the museum prominently featuring a display that conveys an outdated stereotype of man vs. nature?
Given that this artwork has been on display at the museum for 120 years and is one of the iconic symbols of the institution for many, these questions and others warrant greater examination and discussion. Concerns about the display and inaccuracies may not be sufficiently clarified in the current exhibit of Lion Attacking a Dromedary. It is the museum’s responsibility in displaying this art to ensure that the historical context and purpose of the diorama, as well as its lack of scientific realism, is clearly identified.
Broadly speaking, staff at the museum are beginning a process to unpack and re-evaluate the history of natural history, the museum’s collections, and it’s displays, with attention to the way that museum activities have sometimes functioned to naturalize racial, gender, and cultural bias and violence, and contributed to the ecological sustainability crisis of the Anthropocene. The museum invites you to join it in this critical inquiry, with the goal of co-learning and co-reflection as part of its work to cultivate a just and sustainable future for people and the planet. Please stay tuned as the museum unfolds the process in the months and years to come.
Along this theme, with Lion Attacking a Dromedary, the museum is exploring the feasibility to develop a special program in order to convene more community dialogue about this diorama’s history, scientific realism and its social-cultural context in the past and today, as the museum debates the ethics and purpose of this display in relationship to the museum’s mission and vision. In the interim, below is a brief introduction for consideration. We also welcome feedback or questions.
Thank you for reading!
Acquisition and Display History
The diorama was constructed by French naturalist and taxidermist Édouard Verreaux for the Exposition Universelle de 1867. It was likely crafted in collaboration with his brother, Jules Verreaux. At the Exposition, Lion Attaquant un Dromadaire (translation: Lion Attacking a Dromedary) won a gold medal as a masterpiece work of taxidermal art.
In 1868, the American Museum of Natural History in New York purchased the diorama as a show piece for its collection. It appeared briefly in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.
In 1898, the American Museum of Natural History decided to destroy what was then called Arab Courier Attacked by Lions because the museum’s scientific staff deemed it “ill-suited to an institution devoted to scientific pursuits” (Sacco and Schlitter 1994).
Instead, Carnegie Museum of Natural History offered to purchase the diorama for $50, plus $45 for it to travel by rail to Pittsburgh, where technicians re-assembled it and put it in a glass case for the first time. By 1899, Arab Courier Attacked by Lions appeared on display at the Carnegie Museums. Over the years, the exhibit was moved to at least five different locations and changed names, eventually ending up in the Hall of North African Wildlife in the 1980s where it stayed until 2017.
In 1993, Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art at the time, wrote about the diorama in Carnegie Magazine. She discusses it in an Orientalist art tradition and how it does not provide a scientifically accurate depiction of human or animal lives in the region.
There was nothing fundamentally scientific about Camel Driver Attacked by Lions when it was made in the 1860s; that it survived in the scientific realm of the Museum of Natural History is almost by accident.Louise Lippincott, former curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art
In 2016, interest in the object was renewed with attention from Dr. Erin Peters, a Near-Eastern scholar and Egyptologist and a jointly appointed curator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and museum studies lecturer in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. Dr. Peters and other art history scholars further clarified that the diorama is a work of Orientalist art and not an accurate depiction of North African natural history or culture.
Around the same time, other research was also conducted.
The specific species of lion in the display was not confirmed because the Verreaux brothers did not provide specific bio-geographical details about where or how the specimens were collected (C. Pearson, unpublished research). Dr. Jan Janecka at Duquesne University analyzed skin samples taken from the lions to amplify their DNA in hopes to confirm that they are Barbary lions, but DNA amplification was unsuccessful (J. Wible, personal communication). Barbary lions (Panthera leo leo) are a subpopulation of the Asiatic lion that once roamed the deserts and mountains of North Africa. Believed to have been regionally extirpated between 1920 and 1930 due to human hunting and habitat loss, recent research suggests these lions may have persisted into the late 1950s and early 1960s (Black et al 2013).
The thesis work of a University of Pittsburgh honors student, Collette Pearson, uncovered records suggesting the North African figure contained human bones. Subsequent CT scans and X-rays confirmed the presence of a skull, lower jawbone, and teeth from a human individual of unknown origin within the male figure.
This use of human remains, and their display for non-scientific or non-educational purposes, and without consent, does not meet current ethical standards for museums and care of human remains.
In 2017, the diorama was refurbished and moved out of the hall of North African mammals to an entrance to the natural history museum. New labels were added around the diorama to present some of this information. The issue of the unethical display of human remains was not addressed.
The object’s relationship to colonialism and racial violence
Maison Verreaux, the brother’s family taxidermy business, created this object specifically for the Exposition Universelle de 1867. Expositions were a display of power and competition among the colonial powers of the time. In this context, the diorama showcased an imagined exotic and exciting scene situated in France’s North African colonies. As Lippincott (1993) describes, “A crowd pleaser and medal winner, it illustrated a savage life which to Western audiences typified the East.”
With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, France captured Algiers in 1830 and began a period of French colonization and war to dominate North Africa. France took administrative control of land, and facilitated the migration of many Europeans settlers into the region. This process included the violent displacement of native people from some of the most productive and valuable land and repression of their rights and economic opportunities. Around the time of 1867, France was securing its full political, economic and social control of the region. While precisely how many native North African people were killed in the process of colonization is unknown, accounts suggest somewhere between 500,000 – 1,000,000 people.
Lion Attacking a Dromedary was created in France for a celebration of French Empire, during a time when France was actively engaged in a war of conquest in North Africa. The ways that European artworks are influenced by the political and social context is understood as Orientalism. This is described in a ground-breaking book of the same title, published in 1978 by Edward W. Said. Orientalism dates to the period of French and British colonization in North Africa and the Middle East. As a concept, Orientalism refers to the way that Europeans imagined and constructed images of the East through art and literature that specifically emphasized and exaggerated cultural differences compared to the West. Often, this took the form of portraying Arab and other cultures as exotic, backward, savage, and uncivilized in contrast to the West.
These stereotypes and myths about Arab and other cultures rationalized the colonization and dominance of the West over the “inferior” East and justified the need for the “civilizing” projects through colonial authority.
In the 2003 preface to Orientalism, Said discusses the way stereotypes about Arab cultures continue to hold the imaginations of Europe and the United States today, influencing and justifying ongoing geopolitical struggles with the Middle East.
It bears noting that the Barbary lion population had been widespread throughout North Africa until French colonization and the introduction of widespread lion hunting and persecution. Correspondingly, depictions of the savagery of exotic beasts, such as in Lion Attacking a Dromedary, was also a common subject of 19th century European painters and sculptors (Lippincott 1993).
Ethics of display in a natural history museum?
The fact that this display is in a natural history museum adds more complexities to its evaluation. Natural history museums have evolved over the last few hundred years, from curiosity collections of European elites to imperial showcases of scientific collecting, to biodiversity research and informal science educational facilities spread across the globe and serving diverse publics.
Today, natural history museums are widely understood to share empirically-based knowledge about the world, grounded in the best available science. When people come to natural history museums, they expect displays to be factual and educational. This reputation makes it all the more important that the museum continuously updates exhibitions to be in step with evolving scientific and cultural understandings.
From the perspective of scientific education, the display of Lion Attacking a Dromedary at the museum is misleading and seemingly out of place.
The diorama does not convey scientific or cultural anthropological knowledge. It is 19th century taxidermal art created during the French colonization of Northern Africa for an event intended to celebrate the French empire. The diorama feels “real” because it is assembled with the bodies of real animals and the bones of real humans, but otherwise it is a fiction.
According to Pearson’s research, Maison Verreaux had a reputation for unscrupulous behavior not in line with modern natural history museum collection expectations. They did not always keep biogeographic records of collections, thus limiting the value of their contributions. In one well known case with relevance to our museum dilemma, the Verreaux brothers were involved in surreptitiously digging up the grave of an African man in 1830 in order to craft a human taxidermy that eventually became known as “El Negro.” The display ended up in the Darder Museum in Catalonia, Spain around 1916. According to research of Dutch writer Frank Westerman, and re-accounted in a 2016 BBC article, it was not until 1991 that it was identified as problematic. A Spanish doctor of Haitian origin suggested it should be removed. There were supportive statements made by prominent Black and African leaders, but the action was not supported by the local Catalan people, who embraced “El Negro” as a “national treasure.” It remained on view until 1997. Eventually in 2000, the person’s remains were repatriated and reburied in Botswana. However, the tragedy of this situation continues. Recent news stories detail that repatriation in Botswana may have been an error, as the man was more likely from a tribe in South Africa.
Ethics of Human Remain Displays
Repatriation is not possible in the case of Lion Attacking a Dromedary because the remains are of unknown origin and DNA testing has not been pursued in accordance with the museum’s collections policy prohibiting destructive extraction of material for genetic analysis of human remains.
We acknowledge that the display of human remains is a complex ethical issue and the museum is engaged in an active process of preparing a human remains policy that more fully addresses the complex ethical and scientific concerns.
Currently, our guiding principles are to ensure that all human remains held in our collections are treated with respect and dignity. Our curatorial and exhibitions staff work to ensure that human remains are displayed carefully and are always accompanied by explanatory labels that acknowledge and interpret their importance. The display of Lion Attacking a Dromedary and the inclusion of human remains is under review.
Black, Simon et al. 2013. Examining the Extinction of the Barbar Lion and Its Implications for Field Conservation. PloS One. 8(4): e60174
Lippincott, Louise. “Orientalism, Taxidermy and Art in 19th‐Century France: Four Examples at The Carnegie.” Carnegie Magazine May‐June 1993: 32-34. Print.
Pearson, Collette, 2016. “Perpetuating Colonial Constructions of Nature: Arab Courier Attacked by
Lions as Taxidermal Diorama”, Undergraduate thesis, University of Pittsburgh, Environmental Studies. Unpublished.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York. Random House. 1978
Sacco, Janis C., and Duane A. Schlitter. “The Return of the Arab Courier.” Carnegie Magazine Mar-Apr.1994: 31-38. Print.