Challenging the Art of a Diorama
What’s wrong with this diorama? It’s complicated.
This diorama debuted at the 1867 Paris International Exposition. It shows a messenger riding a camel that has been attacked by a male lion. On the ground nearby, a female lion lies dead. Visitors and staff have shared that the scene is painful to witness. Despite this exhibit’s popularity, it reinforces many stereotypes which are highlighted here. For the present, the Museum of Natural History is keeping the diorama on display. We want to engage with visitors, staff, and community members to listen and learn from you as we consider the future of this diorama.
This diorama reinforces colonialist views
Dioramas feel real, but the scenes are shaped by their creator’s worldview. A French taxidermy studio, Maison Verreaux, created this diorama in 1867. At the time, France held colonies in modern-day Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where the scene is set. The taxidermists show a lion (which has been used as a symbol of imperial power for centuries) pouncing on a symbol of local culture—the man and his camel.
This diorama contains human remains
The head of this figure is sculpted around a human skull. The museum doesn’t know who this individual was or how they would have felt about being on display. But we do know that the taxidermists who created the diorama have a troubling history which included grave robbing. The museum is developing a plan to remove the remains of this person from the diorama and place them in a sanctuary space in our care.
This diorama pits humans against nature
By pitting humans against nature, this scene works against the museum’s goal of helping visitors see the interdependency of human life and nature. At the time this diorama was created, many people viewed nature as a force to fight against. Lions and other powerful predatory species were especially feared and hunted to near extinction. This view persists today, although evidence shows that predators are an important part of healthy ecosystems.
This diorama minimizes violence
In the 1800s, this diorama, and images like it, reminded viewers that France took control of countries—including Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—through violent means. Today, this scene reminds some viewers of deeply rooted and present-day violence faced by People of Color, including Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, and multiracial communities. We believe it is important to think critically about the problematic history of this diorama, but we want to be mindful of the real human pain it also represents.
This diorama contains inaccuracies
The French taxidermists who made this diorama, Jules and Édouard Verreaux, created a dramatic scene that is culturally inaccurate as it groups multiple distinct cultures together. Previous research identified the head covering as worn by the Tuareg people, and additional items were from a few other groups in North Africa. This diorama used stereotypes to appeal to Western audiences and depicts non-Western cultures as exotic and uncivilized.