A new policy on the treatment and exhibition of human remains at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History has resulted in the permanent removal of a diorama that has been on display for 124 years.
The taxidermy exhibit titled “Lions Attacking a Dromedary” depicted a fictional scene in which a courier on the back of a camel struggles to resist the attack of a male Barbary lion; beneath the camel, the body of a dead female lion lies on the ground next to a rifle. Since it went on view in 1899, the exhibit received a wide-range of criticism that targeted its name “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions,” which was changed six years ago, its misrepresentation of Northern African people, and its perpetuation of colonialist stereotypes.
But scrutiny of the display escalated in 2017, when the museum discovered during its refurbishment of the historic exhibit that the diorama’s mannequin had been cast around a real human skull.
In 2020, the museum took the exhibit down temporarily in response to complaints from visitors, but later reinstated it. Now, new updates to the institution’s collections policy regarding the treatment of human remains has led the museum to permanently deinstall the exhibit, as first reported by WESA. The display case that was the former home of the fictional lion attack is now shielded with translucent glass; in front, a sign reads: “Why is the diorama changing?”
“The Museum recognizes the special circumstances required for the care and curation of human
remains,” the policy statement says. “While scientific research is integral to the mission of the Museum, this policy acknowledges that human remains were once living, breathing human beings with familial and cultural ties.”
The label notes that the institution plans to “use informed consent” from either the individual or their descendants as a base standard for accessing and curating human remains, in addition to burials and life casts. However, the institution says it will not display any more human remains or sensitive materials moving forward except in “exceptional circumstances.” (Hyperallergic has asked the museum to explain what exceptional circumstances might entail.)
The Carnegie Museum of Natural history currently holds the remains of 900 individuals, a number that includes life casts (replicas made of living people usually made from plaster) and hominids (ancestral primates) that originated from a range of international sources. Out of all these ancestral remains, the “Lion Attacking a Dromedary” display was the only instance in which the provenance of the remains was unknown, the museum said. Prior to the policy change, four human remains had been on display at the historic institution. The museum did not clarify to Hyperallergic what these other remains were, though WESA reported that in addition to the taxidermy exhibit, the museum also removed the skull and bones of an individual from its Hall of Egypt.
While there are no more individual human remains on display, the museum told Hyperallergic that 18 life casts are still on view.
Prepared by the institution’s Human Remains Policy Working Group, which is comprised of museum staff from multiple departments, the new policy also pertains to “sensitive materials” often displayed alongside these human remains including photographs of human remains and burials, as well as any artistic depictions of specific individuals, who have not provided informed consent.
In adherence with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the museum said that it is making progress to repatriate the ancestral remains currently in its collection.
“We are working with descendent communities, government officials, ethical stakeholders, and living relatives to initiate repatriations,” a spokesperson for the museum told Hyperallergic, adding that “this is a long process, and it can take years to repatriate a single individual.”
The museum declined to say what will take the place of the long-standing display, explaining that these plans will be announced at a later date.