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Restoration reveals human remains in famous Carnegie diorama |
Art & Museums

Restoration reveals human remains in famous Carnegie diorama

Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The head of the figure in the 'Arab Courier Attacked by Lions' diorama sits detached from the rest of the diorama on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. while it is being worked on before it goes on display
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Gretchen Anderson, a conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History stands by the 'Arab Courier Attacked by Lions' diorama before it goes on display on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The taxidermied lion attacks the camel in the 'Arab Courier Attacked by Lions' diorama while it is being worked on before it goes on display on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The taxidermied leg of lion scratches the leg of the camel in the 'Arab Courier Attacked by Lions' diorama while it is being worked on before it goes on display on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Cassandra Seth, of Butler and her children, Bryce, 10, and Arianna, 8, view the 'Arab Courier Attacked by Lions' while it is being prepared for display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.

“Arab Courier Attacked by Lions,” among the oldest and most storied pieces of taxidermy on Earth, will return to public display Saturday at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History with a new name, a new location and new secrets revealed — including the fact it contains human remains.

“It’s an amazing piece,” said Gretchen Anderson, conservator for the museum.

For nine months, Anderson and her team have been restoring the dramatic diorama – one of the very few to feature a human figure, which is riding a dromedary camel being attacked by what are believed to be Barbary lions, a species now extinct.

“We’ve talked to hundreds of people. Everybody remembers it. Everybody talks about it. Kids love it,” Anderson said. “This is very iconic of this place.”

The diorama was first displayed 150 years ago at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, where it created a sensation and won a gold medal. Two years later, it was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it was equally popular. It traveled to Philadelphia to be a featured exhibit in the Centennial Exposition of 1876, but was subsequently boxed and put into storage in New York until Andrew Carnegie purchased it in 1899 for his new museum in Pittsburgh, where it has remained on display ever since.

“For the first 30 years of its life, it was not under glass,” Anderson noted, and although it has been under glass since it arrived in Pittsburgh, the glass was not air tight.

Anderson and her team carefully removed the accumulated grime from mid-19th Century Paris, New York – “not known to be the cleanest city on Earth” – and the notorious air pollution of industrial Pittsburgh.

With cotton swabs dipped in enzymatic solution – the only liquid used anywhere in the restoration – they removed the cloudiness that had obscured the unique and startling reverse-painted glass eyes in the exhibit.

As Anderson put it: “the colors are popping.”

The restoration has also revealed some surprises.

There’s a significant tear in the camel’s neck — most likely a result of transportation from Philadelphia back to New York or from New York to Pittsburgh — and as a consequence, the rider is in a different position than he originally was, according to archival photos.

“When it came here, it seems to have changed,” Anderson said.

Frederick Webster, one of the most accomplished taxidermists of his age and a museum employee at the time, refurbished the diorama after it arrived from New York, but he could not fix the tear, which will remain.

“Quite frankly, if Webster couldn’t repair that at the time, I’m not doing much,” Anderson said. The new display will do “exactly what has been done the last 117 years: artfully drape the (rider’s) capes” to disguise the tear.

X-rays revealed bones in the animals: They retain their skulls, long bones in their legs, and various other bones.

“What’s wild is you actually have some neck bones and some vertebrae and some other bones scattered throughout, which is sort of a surprise,” Anderson said. The camel’s original ribs are connected to a spine constructed largely of wood.

And then there’s the rider.

Museum officials knew there were real human teeth in the mannequin and that the Verreaux brothers who created it had infamously taxidermied an African tribesman in 1830, but the museum had maintained there was no evidence of other human parts in the display.

During the restoration, a CT scan of the rider’s head revealed a complete human skull.

“The mannequin is purely a mannequin… except for the skull,” Anderson said. “It’s why the human face is as accurate as it is.”

The discovery triggered ethical discussions about the most appropriate action. Any attempt to return the remains to their origin for reburial is frustrated by the fact museum officials have no idea where the skull came from.

Erin Peters, the museum’s assistant curator of science and research, doubts they’ll ever know for sure.

They’ve found nothing in the archives, and records of the Verreaux brothers’ acquisition of specimens — when they do exist — are notoriously vague and often demonstrably inaccurate. Scholars have shown they misrepresented the origin of some of their work to improve the market value for sale to museums.

Scientists at Carnegie have taken samples from the lions in the display in an attempt to verify through DNA whether they are, in fact, Barbary lions.

The clothes on the “Arab” represent a mix of North African fashion.

As for the skull itself, Anderson noted, it’s entirely possible that somebody “went down to the catacombs in Paris” and filched one. More gruesome practices were not uncommon in Europe at the time. A popular anatomy lecturer at Edinburgh University, with whom the Verreaux brothers may have been acquainted, was suspected of being complicit in the murder of 16 people whose bodies were purchased for dissection in his classes.

“I have discussed this with other archaeologists, and we believe it is unlikely that even DNA testing would give us specific enough information,” said Peters.

“We cannot repatriate with the information we have now,” she said, “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.”

In the meantime, Carnegie’s first and most dramatic diorama will go on display in a new position of prominence.

A full day symposium Saturday honors the diorama’s noon-time unveiling in its new, first-floor location near the grand staircase between the museums of art and natural history.

The work itself bridges those two worlds: while taxidermy was part of the 19th Century scientific tradition, the diorama’s dramatic presentation is entirely drawn from Orientalist art of the time.

With a new location comes a new name: “Lion Attacking a Dromedary,” which accurately describes the scene and dispels a stereotype: the mannequin does not accurately represent an Arab from North Africa at the time.

The symposium will include presentations from museum curators, University of Pittsburgh experts in French language, Arabic history and history of art.

Museum director Eric Dorfman and Nadia Khawaja, Outreach Coordinator for the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh, will discuss the thinking around the museum’s decision making process regarding the human remains, display, and the cultural stereotypes represented in the diorama.

Donald Gilliland is Digital Editor for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; reach him at [email protected]

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