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Museum’s ‘Arab Courier Attacked by Lions’ has a real human skull

The diorama looks very real and standing in front of the scene, one can almost feel the ferocity of the large Barbary lion as he lunges for the frightened saber-wielding courier. You can see and feel the terror in the camel, its leg bloodied by the claws of the lion, while the female lion lies dead between the camel’s front legs.

It’s a magnificent and thought-provoking piece of work. The piece, properly called “Lion attacking a dromedary,” was created by French naturalist and taxidermist Edouard Verreaux for the Paris Exposition of 1867. And in all those years, the diorama has managed to keep a disturbing secret, at least until this year, reports Gizmodo.

A Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) from Algeria filmed in 1893 and published in 1913. Barbary lions a...

A Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) from Algeria filmed in 1893 and published in 1913. Barbary lions are now extinct in the wild.
Alfred Edward Pease (29 June 1857 – 27 April 1939)

The diorama has quite a story to tell. So let’s go back to France and the Paris Exposition of 1867. Two years after the Exposition, the diorama was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But it was determined to be “gauche,” and too theatrical. It was also deemed to be of no scientific value, and so it remained in storage for three decades.

Along came Andrew Carnegie in 1898, and he purchased the piece for a mere $50, and had it shipped by train to Pittsburg for another $45. And until this year, “Arab Courier being Attacked by Lions” was displayed on the second floor of the museum, near the African Wildlife Hall.

Last year, museum staff began a restoration of the piece, along with doing new research and a reinterpretation before moving it to a new location in the main hallway of the museum. Here is where the story becomes very interesting.

After studying a stereoscopic image of the exhibit from the Paris exhibition, the museum discovered the creator was actually Edouard Verreaux instead of his brother, Jules, who was thought to be the creator of the piece. Brother Jules was also happened to be a taxidermist.

The stereographic image also showed the rider to be in a more upright position instead of being slumped over his saddle like he is now. But that bit of information paled in comparison to what a CT scan of the piece revealed. Of course, the museum knew that the animals were real creatures who had been stuffed. And they knew the courier’s teeth were real.

Diorama as it was about a year ago  before restoration.

Diorama as it was about a year ago, before restoration.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History

But besides the CT scan showing all the animal’s bones, it also showed the man had a real human skull. “The mannequin is purely a mannequin except for the skull,” said conservator Gretchen Anderson, according to the UK’s The Sun. “It’s why the human face is as accurate as it is.”

The Post-Gazette says using human remains in taxidermy is not without precedent. In 1831, the Verreaux brothers taxidermied an African San person known as “El Negro of Banyoles.” The body was on display at Spain’s Darder Museum until 1997. In that case, the body was returned to its country of origin in 2000.

And the Carnegie Museum has also considered returning the skull, but they don’t have enough DNA information to give them conclusive evidence, says Anderson. “We cannot repatriate with the information we have now but are hoping to continue our research, particularly with French archival resources, which have given us a number of new insights about the history of the diorama.”


Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The fully restored and reinterpreted diorama will be unveiled this Saturday at noon during a free, daylong symposium sponsored by the museum and the University of Pittsburgh. It looks to be interesting because there will be symposiums and discussions on how visitors to the Exposition of 1867 interpreted North African culture and how we interpret that culture today.

According to the museum. the artistic style evident in the piece can be viewed as a stereotyped, colonialist misrepresentation of North Africa and the Middle East. After the symposium, there will be a community discussion led by the outreach coordinator for the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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