American News Feb 16, 2021 4:21 AM EST

History museum hides 19th century exhibit because display is 'painful to witness' for people of color

A Pittsburgh museum has hidden an iconic exhibit that portrays what appears to be an Arab man dressed in African wardrobe engaged in conflict with lions, because the 19th century display is "painful to witness" for people of color.

History museum hides 19th century exhibit because display is 'painful to witness' for people of color
Mia Cathell The Post Millennial
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A Pittsburgh museum has hidden an iconic exhibit that portrays what appears to be an Arab man dressed in African wardrobe engaged in conflict with lions, because the 19th century display is "painful to witness" for people of color, perpetuates their "dehumanization," and desensitizes viewers to racial violence.

A fight for survival is captured in the famous "Lion Attacking a Dromedary" diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural Science, which encases an aggressive encounter between two lions and the subject seated on his one-humped camel. Fear is shown on the man's face while the dromedary appears to be in anguish. A ferocious male lion is seen in attack mode as another female lion lies dead.

The 154-year-old taxidermy piece has disturbed several community members because the historical diorama depicts physical violence against the so-called Arab courier in clothing derived from at least five separate North African cultures.

"For some people of color, their traumatic experience with racialized violence leads them to see this diorama primarily through that lens," the museum's interim director Stephen Tonsor told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, noting that no other dioramas spotlight white European humans under attack by animals.

Tonsor also pointed out that it's the female lions that hunt. "So, that's one example in which the biases we have in Western culture about male dominance lead to misrepresentation of what happens in the natural world," he continued.

Amid widespread claims of systemic racism in America last year, the museum took action in step with other institutions. In June 2020, the diorama was covered. A cautionary sign now placed in the vicinity of the site reads: "We will not tell you how or if you ought to see this. We want everyone to understand the divergent ways people experience this diorama. Empathy and understanding are part of what makes us human and can bring us closer together."

"Please view this diorama if you wish," the message warns, citing a number of concerned staff members, patrons, scholars and industry colleagues. "The location of the work made it unavoidable to those who do not wish to see it."

The piece was first unveiled at the 1867 Paris International Exposition in the French decorative arts section and later purchased from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for only $50 in 1898. "A crowd pleaser and medal winner," the work illustrated how "Western audiences typified the East," the museum's then-curator of fine arts Louise Lippincott described in 1993.

After it was revealed that the rider misrepresents an Arab from North Africa, which is common in 19th-century art, the name was changed from "Arab Courier Attacked by Lions" to the new title that "better reflects the exhibit's storyline" and seeks to dispel the long-held stereotype, the museum's assistant curator of science and research Erin Peters explained in Carnegie Magazine at the time.

That same year, the diorama ignited controversy related to charges of historical inaccuracies and racism. The museum sponsored an academic symposium, entitled "Historical and Intellectual Contexts of the Diorama," to discuss how the "Orientalist" artwork perpetuated falsehoods about the Middle East and peddled colonized views of North Africa.

Museum records identified the lions in the diorama as members of the Barbary subspecies—now extinct in the wild—that once roamed the deserts and mountains of North Africa before years of hunting by humans, deforestation, and reduced food sources dwindled their numbers. However, Duquesne University researchers analyzed skin samples taken from the lions to amplify their genetic makeup, but the confirmation process was unsuccessful.

The popular attraction—second favorite in the natural history collection behind the "Dippy" dinosaur statue outside—was refurbished and moved out of the hall of North African mammals in 2017 to its prominent spot at the museum's entrance near the Grand Staircase. When museum conservators transported the diorama from its longtime home on the second floor, loose parts were removed, the structure was reinforced with wood, and the entire apparatus was wrapped in plastic to ensure safe transit.

Despite the name change and years of public dialogue, the museum has received complaints that the priceless diorama feels "discriminatory and unwelcoming" in addition to questions about the ethics and purpose of the presentation.

The visceral scene has made unforgettable impressions on countless schoolchildren and numerous other visitors for generations who have stopped in their civilized tracks to gape at the savage battle between man and beast, etching into the collective childhood of greater Pittsburgh.

Museum officials are still considering whether to spotlight the diorama or keep the memorable object out of public view to appeal to sensitive eyes. As an educational institution "dedicated to sharing biological and cultural science based in contemporary knowledge and ethical standards," the museum declared its commitment to providing an "inclusive and welcoming environment for all people." The museum's display "raises challenging questions" and "offers an important opportunity for reflection," the exhibit's webpage acknowledges.

The description then inquires about the piece's relevance to natural history, if the object is "based in empirical observation" or "the imagination of an artist," the creator's relationship to North Africa, the social-political conditions of the era, and the artifact's relevance to ongoing geopolitical struggles today.

Natural history museums have evolved from "curiosity collections of European elites" to "imperial showcases" to biodiversity research, the museum's website states. But from the perspective of scientific education, the display in question is "misleading" and "out of place."

"The diorama does not convey scientific or cultural anthropological knowledge," museum leadership concludes. "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 realistic because the work is assembled with the bodies of real animals and the bones of real humans, but otherwise it is "fiction," the statement ends.

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