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Carnegie Museums adopt new human remains policy, remove iconic diorama

 The Carnegie Museums diorama "Lions Attacking A Dramedy" is currently covered and will not be returned to display.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
The Carnegie Museums diorama "Lions Attacking A Dramedy" is currently covered and will not be returned to display.

Since 1899, the taxidermy diorama most recently titled “Lions Attacking a Dromedary” had been a staple at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It lasted the whole 20th century and well into the 21st.

That 124-year run ended last week thanks to a new museum policy. The diorama’s human figure — which was mounted on a camel — contained a real skull, a matter of controversy since the museum discovered it, in 2017. The museum spent the past few years surveying staff and visitors and gathering feedback about the piece.

Then, in September, the Carnegie’s board of trustees voted to forbid the museum from displaying human remains without consent, said museum director Gretchen Baker.

So last week, Baker said, workers removed the mannequin’s head containing the skull, and freed the skull from the sculpted face — the face generations of visitors will recall as contorted in terror from the encounter with two powerful Barbary lions.

The windows of the glass case, which occupies the hall near the museum’s grand staircase, were covered with opaque vinyl, and a sign was installed reading, “Why is the diorama changing?”

But it isn’t simply changing. No one will see the complete diorama again.

The piece was created in the 1860s, by French taxidermists, and was presumably meant to depict a scene in the deserts of North Africa. Its subsequent homes included New York’s American Museum of Natural History. That institution sold it to the Carnegie in 1898, meaning it’s been in Pittsburgh only two years fewer than the museum itself.

The museum made the decision to remove it only after much deliberation, said Baker — and it wasn’t just because of the skull.

The diorama was originally titled “Arab Courier Attacked By Lions,” and concerns about it included feedback from staff and visitors who were distressed by the depiction of a dark-skinned man being traumatized.

The face of the mounted man — who was armed and seemed to have already killed one of the lions — was both what transfixed so many visitors and made it so hurtful to many others.

That’s one reason, Baker said, the museum chose not to simply rebuild the rider’s face without a human skull. “I’m not going to recreate that face when it’s something that has caused a lot of individuals harm,” she said.

All these concerns were in play in 2020, when the museum temporarily removed the exhibit from display. In 2021, the Carnegie unveiled a new version of the diorama, complete with explanatory signage about its history, the ways in which it was culturally and scientifically inaccurate, and background on the 2017 maintenance project that had first discovered the skull.

Baker said many visitors appreciated the new information. But, she added, “There are a lot of people who still feel that it’s very harmful to have this display on view and question the educational value of it.”

The Carnegie’s new policy and removal of the diorama is part of a larger and ongoing reckoning by museums worldwide that hold or display human remains or artifacts looted from other cultures. The history of museums is deeply entwined, after all, with the history of colonialism.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 legally requires U.S. museums to address the issue as it pertains to indigenous people of North America.

Under its new policy, the Carnegie can display human remains only with the consent of the subject or the subject's descendant communities. Pursuant to the policy, the Carnegie also recently removed from its Hall of Egypt the skull and bones of an individual that had long been displayed to illustrate archaeology and ancient burial practices.

Baker said the museum’s new policy also applies to life casts — 3D copies of living people, traditionally made with plaster. The Carnegie displays a number of these in its Hall of American Indians, but Baker said all of them were obtained with consent.

She said the skull from the diorama and the Egyptian skeleton are the only human remains in the museum’s possession. (That puts the Carnegie in a much different position than, say, the British Museum, which owns thousands.)

Baker joined the museum as director in 2021. At that time, the museum still hoped it might use “Lions Attacking A Dromedary” as an educational tool. That is no longer the case.

“It’s important to have object-based conversations and to be able to use objects to tell stories about our pasts, but ultimately if this diorama causes harm for members of our public and members of our staff, it’s not the right object around which to have some of these conversations about race and colonialism and the history of taxidermy,” said Baker. “We can find other objects and ways of having those conversations that doesn’t create that kind of harm.”

While “Lions Attacking a Dromedary” is gone, there should be more to the story of its individual component parts. Baker said the skull is being tested to determine its place of origin for possible repatriation. And the mannequin’s clothes will remain in the museum’s collection, along with the taxidermy camel and lions, for possible future study or use by the museum.

Bill O'Driscoll