Winter 2016
Lion Attacking A Dromedary

An old favorite at Carnegie Museum of Natural History
will soon get a new home—and a new name.

By Cristina Rouvalis

For more than a century, visitors have arrived at Carnegie Museum of Natural History for a leisurely visit, only to stop in their civilized tracks and gape at a savage battle between man and beast. The sheer drama of the animal grouping known as Arab Courier Attacked by Lions has been etched into the collective childhood of greater Pittsburgh.

Conservation technician Linsly Church cleans the exhibit. 
Photo: Jim Burke

Who will survive? The charging Barbary lion, his claws sinking into the camel’s bloodied leg? Or the North African man, seemingly lunging at the lion with his sabre?

But on an afternoon in October, visitors marveled at this scene for another reason. The museum favorite was out of its glass case, and the courier’s head was missing.

It wasn’t because the courier lost to the lion. Gretchen Anderson, the museum’s conservator, had carefully stashed away the head so it would be safe during transfer and could be cleaned and examined later. Her assistant Linsly Church was hoisted up on a lift to clean the top of the rider’s saddle, gently stroking off dirt with a soft brush.

She wasn’t merely dusting off history. The examination was part of the reinterpretation of the storied exhibit, created by French taxidermist Édouard Verreaux for the Paris Exposition of 1867. After its debut, the display was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But despite its popularity with visitors, the diorama quickly fell out of favor with museum officials who deemed it too strong on theatrics. The museum had plans to discard it before selling it to Carnegie Museums in 1898 for $50.

“The work really comes out of an artistic tradition, not a scientific tradition. Putting it in the building’s spine is connecting it to the art world.”
-  Erin Peters, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s assistant curator of science and research
In January, the iconic work will move again—this time a short trip from its quiet corner on the second floor to the busier and brighter first-floor foyer shared by Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. Its new home, where Jane, the juvenile T. rex, stood before her recent move to the expanded gift shop, is prime real estate, a high-traffic spot that reflects the diorama’s place at the intersection of art and natural history. “The work really comes out of an artistic tradition, not a scientific tradition,” says Erin Peters, the museum’s assistant curator of science and research. “Putting it in the building’s spine is connecting it to the art world.”

Thanks to generous support provided by Joe and Kathy Guyaux, in the new location museumgoers will learn more about the rich history of the tableaux that has enthralled visitors for generations.  

Though the museum was aware that unidentified human teeth were inside the courier’s head, little else was known about the mannequin. To learn more, John Wible, the museum’s curator of mammals, contacted an associate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, who generously agreed to perform a CT scan on its head. Wible was astonished when the scan revealed an entire human skull.  “Wow, I didn’t expect to see that,” Wible recounts, noting that it wasn’t common practice for taxidermists to use human remains in dioramas.

With such a discovery, the museum would typically enter into discussions about repatriation, the process of returning remains to their native land. In this case, however, Peters doubts it will be possible. Without archival records, there’s no way to document precisely where the head came from without further research such as DNA testing, which could still not yield specific enough information. Even so,
she notes, the museum intends to continue research and testing to learn as much as it can about the skull’s origins and the construction of the exhibit.

One fascinating piece of history Peters did uncover was a stereoscopic image of the display from the Paris exhibition. It confirms that the rider used to be upright in the saddle instead of slumped over the Arabian camel, also known as a dromedary, as it’s displayed today. Peters and Anderson believe the rider’s position was changed to hide a hole in the dromedary’s neck that resulted from damage during its trip from New York to Pittsburgh. The museum has chosen not to repair it, Anderson says, because it would put more stress on the animal’s already dry skin.  

The original pose shows a courier with power. “It gives the rider more agency,” Peters says. “He has killed one lion and there is a chance he could make it.” In contrast, the current pose makes it look as though the man might fall over and end up in the lion’s fangs.

The 1867 photograph also provides Édouard Verreaux with proper credit as creator of the exhibit. For more than a century, the museum believed it was built by his brother, Jules, also a taxidermist.

Earlier this year, Sue McLaren, collection  manager for mammals, crawled into the display’s open case and took a small piece of skin from the underbelly of the two lions. “It was neat to be inside the diorama,” McLaren admits, noting the last time it was opened up and examined was in 1994. “I feel like I grew up with it. I would stand in front of it and ask, ‘Who’s going to win?’”

Using the skin, DNA tests will be conducted to see if they in fact come from Barbary lions, a subspecies of the African lion that is now extinct in the wild. Nancy Love, a technician in the Allegheny County’s Coroner’s office, brought a portable X-ray machine to the museum in order to examine the display, discovering real leg bones, feet bones, and skulls in the lions and camel, not unexpected findings, says Steve Rogers, the museum’s historian of taxidermy. Because few X-ray studies exist of large mammal displays the world over, Rogers says educated guesswork will help the museum team determine how exactly the grouping was constructed.

Not only is the visitor favorite getting a new home, but it also has a new name: Lion Attacking a Dromedary, that better reflects the exhibit’s storyline. The change also seeks to dispel a long-held stereotype. Peters says the rider misrepresents an Arab from North Africa, which is common in 19th-century art. One clue is the wardrobe. “It’s close enough that you think it’s true,” she says. “But the clothing comes from different groups of people, [Tuareg (Berber) and Arab].”

Even the display’s landscape—a desert scene with no culture and violent drama—fits into a colonized view of North Africa. To help break down the stereotype, Peters hopes to have a member of the local Arab or Islamic community participate in a January symposium, providing insight on how art has perpetuated falsehoods about Arabs. “So many of our stereotypes come through visual means,” she notes.  

The symposium will also feature scholars from the University of Pittsburgh and staff from both the art and natural history museums, discussing taxidermy and restoration of the exhibit.

Some museum visitors already received a peek into the restoration process, watching Anderson at work in full view of the public. While brushing off soot and documenting observations, she gladly fielded questions from passersby and kept at least one careening toddler from getting a little too close to the action. “Kids just love this,” says Anderson. “It’s very exciting to play a role in the care of such an iconic piece.”



Also in this issue:

Head-to-toe Science  ·  Art as an Equalizer  ·  Earth in the Age of Humans  ·  Strength in Numbers  ·  President's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Jeffrey Inscho  ·  Artistic License: New Voices of Appalachia  ·  About Town: Reconstructing Pittsburgh's Atomic Past  ·  Travel Log  ·  The Big Picture