Boy, as a kid, would I have loved the diorama “Lion Attacking a Dromedary” at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh! Things like that—by “like that” I mean cool, stimulating exhibits that fired my curiosity—got me interested in all sorts of subjects growing up: paleontology, zoology, history. The creation of French naturalist and taxidermist Edouard Verreaux and his brother was made for the Paris Exposition of 1867 and has been at the Pittsburgh museum since 1899. I wish it had been lodged at the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass., where I used to spend long, leisurely Saturdays with my best friend, Peter Bena.
But now, fully in the grip of what I call “The Great Stupid,” the Carnegie Museum’s interim director says the exhibit is being “reconsidered,” because the exciting scene has disturbed “some.” After all, it depicts violence against a man described as an Arab courier. Also, the victim’s garb has been determined to be “derived from” at least five separate North African cultures. So that’s bad. I’m not sure why, but it’s bad. I’m sure PETA thinks the scene encourages cruelty to camels.
To make things worse for the exhibit, recent X-rays of the lions’ victim showed that the 1860s-era taxidermy was performed with real human bones from an unknown person. The director notes that the museum’s ethics policy requires that the use of any human remains “respect the person’s cultural traditions” and only be done with permission “of the people whose remains are displayed.” He also tut-tuts that the museum has no other dioramas that include humans, “and certainly no white European humans being attacked by animals.”
And wait! There’s more! The scene depicts a male lion hunting, though it much more common for female lions do the hunting.
Ethics verdict: There is nothing unethical about the diorama.
The complaints listed by the director are contrived and silly. To begin with, the diorama itself has historical significance because of its origins, so the niggling about the authenticity of, for example, the currier’s costume is irrelevant. The director’s statement that “no white European humans being attacked by animals” are shown in the museum is so idiotic that no one should take this political correctness junkie seriously, ideally for the rest of his irritating life. Is his contention that there should be a diorama showing every race and ethnic group being attacked by lions, or else the museum is being discriminatory? Oh, probably. I sometimes wonder if all humans should have devices installed in their heads that cause them to explode when they think anything this stupid, for the protection of society.
As for the museum’s ethics rule regarding human remains, obviously that should only apply to exhibits added to the museum after the rule was promulgated. There is no way to get consent from an unknown individual who lived over a 150 years ago. (“Pardon me, sir, would you please sign this consent form allowing you to be shown as an Arab being attacked by lions for the foreseeable future?” ) As for the—what do we call it, dead lion sexism?—imaginary problem of a male lion attacking in the scene rather than a female lion, there is this rather famous precedent, memorialized in another, presumably less hysterical museum, the Field Museum in Chicago, with this exhibit:
Yes, the title to this post was a trick. The diorama is neither icky nor unethical, but this episode is just one more example of the perpetually offended making life a little less interesting, dynamic and stimulating in their own petty, crummy ways, every day of their lives.