Dramatic Carnegie Museum exhibit due for the top of the table
Suzanne McLaren, manager of the Carnegie Museum of Natural Historys mammal research collection, with the venerable "Arab Courier Attacked by Lions" exhibit. It will become the first in a series of Carnegie Memories snow globes.
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For many visitors of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the diorama exhibit of a Barbary lion attacking a man on a camel is scary, unsettling.
"Arab Courier Attacked by Lions," as it's known, is dramatic enough to scar the mind, much the way the male lion's claw has scarred the camel's leg.
"It scared the hell out of me," said Dr. Richard Moriarity, president of the Carnegie Discoverers, describing his boyhood reaction to seeing the exhibit for the first time. "Your imagination allows you to tell the story. There's something about it that draws you in.
"It continues to fascinate me."
Do the saber-bearing man and his despairing camel survive the attack or end up as lion food? That unanswered question has made the "The Arab Courier" arguably the most popular exhibit of the museum's 115-year history.
Museum officials now plan to memorialize it with the first snow globe of the "Carnegie Memories" series, scheduled to go on sale next year. With the diorama depicting a scene in the North Sahara, the globe likely will include gold-leaf flakes rather than "snow" to produce a sandstorm rather than snowfall when shaken. But it still will be called a snow globe.
Samuel Taylor, Carnegie Museum director, said choosing "Arab Courier" to launch the snow-globe series of popular museum exhibits was made "in about three microseconds."
The museum had hoped to have the snow globe available for the holiday season in the price range of $30 to $40. But production was pushed into 2010 when the Chinese snow-globe manufacturer shut down its factory with plans to build a new one.
The snow globe will be designed to spark a cherished museum memory.
"Rather than offer a plastic dinosaur, we thought we would capture a world view of what the museum represents," Dr. Taylor said. "The Arab Courier exhibit occupies that spot in museum heritage that the museum occupies in the heart of people who grew up in Pittsburgh."
The 142-year-old diorama exhibit, criticized a century ago for being long on drama and short on science, actually offers both with added magic. Dr. Taylor said it tells a story that forces one to contemplate its outcome. The "talisman exhibit," he said, never was intended to teach the taxonomy of lions.
Suzanne McLaren, collection manager for the museum's mammal research collection, detailed the exhibit's rich history during a recent meeting of the Carnegie Discoverers, a group comprising museum contributors.
The exhibit, she noted, represents the masterwork of Jules Verreaux, a French naturalist whose father founded the renowned taxidermy business Maison Verreaux in 1803. The Web site www.ravishingbeasts.com, among other sources including www.catalogue-of-organisms.com and the Botswana Journal of African Studies, Vol. 16. No. 1, describes the business as "the foremost supplier of natural history specimens in the world at the time."
Maison Verreaux, which collected 400,000 specimens by 1866, provided museums of the Western World with displays that became popular entertainment in the Victorian Age before television or cinema.
Jules Verreaux and his brothers revived the family business in the 1830s as world-class field naturalists. His work as a naturalist influenced his work in taxidermy.
"Verreaux is perhaps most famous for his theatrical taxidermy, particularly the sensational Arab Courier Attacked by Lions," www.ravishingbeasts.com states.
The "Arab Courier" features a mannequin wearing a black cape typical of the Arab and Tuareg dress of North Africa. The exhibit was unveiled at the Exposition Universelle, or Paris Exposition, of 1867, which ran for seven months and attracted up to 15 million visitors.
"Arab Courier" won the exposition's gold medal for excellence and was heralded as a "ground-breaking exhibit," since it countered the traditional practice of mounting specimens on bases and lining them up.
"By having multiple specimens arrayed before you, you would then understand the order of nature and our superiority over the natural world," Dr. Taylor said, describing the Victorian Age philosophy of museum taxidermy.
Besides gathering thousands of plant and animal specimens worldwide, Mr. Verreaux also searched for mythical animals such as unicorns, as well as the extinct Vouron Patra or elephant bird. Many of his specimens were displayed in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, where he served as a naturalist.
To gather specimens, Mr. Verreaux took extended trips to South Africa, Australia and China and spent time in North Africa collecting plants. That's where he likely saw Tuareg and Arab clothing and began gathering ideas for his famous diorama.
After the exposition closed, Mr. Verreaux would flee Paris in 1870 at the start of the Franco-Prussian War and end up in England.
Two years after the Paris Exposition ended, the American Museum of Natural History, known for its philosophy of scientific purity, bought the now-famous Arab Courier exhibit and 10,000 other specimens from Mr. Verreaux, whose sell-off of Maison Verreaux inventory raised speculation that he was dying from lifelong exposure to toxic taxidermy chemicals. He died shortly thereafter in 1873.
For three decades, the diorama remained in storage in the Arsenal Building of New York City's Central Park because museum officials felt it too theatrical -- too "gauche" -- and not scientific enough to merit museum display.
Rather than destroy the exhibit, the American Museum chose to sell it, and the newly created Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh purchased it at the bargain-basement price of $50 in 1896, two years after the museum opened. But Carnegie Museum Director William Holland grew angry when the railroad charged him $45 to ship the exhibit to Pittsburgh. That railroad claimed the price was justified because it had to use a gondola rather than a conventional freight car to transport the large exhibit, Ms. McLaren said.
Now the Carnegie owned the diorama that had changed the art of taxidermy. Ms. McLaren said Dr. Holland had the sensibilities to realize that such an exhibit would be "good for Pittsburgh."
A metal framework supports the two Barbary lions and camel. The three stretched animal skins are stuffed with straw and excelsior, or ribbon-sized slivers of wood that serve as packing material. The human figure covered by a black, cotton cloak is stuffed with horsehair with a steel-rod support.
Maison Verreaux had stirred controversy in the mid-1800s by turning a South African human corpse, among other human remains, into a taxidermy display. It spawned speculation that the camel driver originally had been a stuffed human, but no evidence ever existed to suggest the figure was anything more than a plaster mannequin.
But the Botswana Journal of Natural Studies quotes a Carnegie Museum official from long ago who claimed the human mount "may have been real prior to 1899 when it was refurbished" by noted taxidermist Frederick Webster for the museum. He repaired insect damage and filled the animals with excelsior.
Ms. McLaren said a display containing human parts would have been short-lived due to insect damage and odors. Besides, she said, European sensibilities would not have embraced an exhibit that used human parts, even in 1867.
Barbary lions living in the Atlas Mountains of Algiers in northern Africa became extinct shortly after the exhibit went on public display in Paris. Ms. McLaren said the last Barbary lion died in captivity in Germany in 1922.
For that reason, scientists interested in lion lineage asked in 1994 to take samples of the lion skins for genetic analysis, but museum officials decided against it. Such samples became unnecessary when the scientists located Barbary lion bones. There have been other requests to use the lions for research on the extinct subspecies.
In 1958, the diorama included an African High Plains environment in the background, which prevented visitors from seeing it from all sides. When the new African Hall was established in May 1993, the diorama was cleaned with dry chemicals and gently vacuumed before being enclosed in glass without the background. That's where it remains today.
Now with the snow globe, Ms. McLaren said, "the story continues to evolve."
First Published December 28, 2009 12:00 am