Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.
Who says a diorama has to be boring? Sam Donovan's favorite museum exhibit is "Arab Courier Attacked by Lions", on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Built by Jules Verreaux for the Paris Exposition in 1867, it was purchased first by the American Museum of Natural History—which quickly thought better of it*—and was then sold to Andrew Carnegie in 1898 for $50. Today, it can be purchased in snow-globe form** for $40. Inflation is a bitch.
The lions preserved here are Barbary lions, a subspecies that went extinct in the wild in the early 20th century.
The "Arab courier", thankfully, is a mannequin. However, that might not have always been the case. Jules Verreaux had previously stuffed and mounted the corpses of non-Europeans before he made this diorama. Meanwhile, the man who was preparator-in-chief at the Carnegie Museum at the time they purchased "Arab Courier" once wrote that the courier "might have been real prior to 1899 when it was refurbished." So, yeah. Historical racism. How about that?
There are often problems associated with how natural history museums traditionally collected and displayed artifacts. The history here actually ends up being a great example of how culture and social norms and influence how we think about science. The facts may not change, but our interpretation of them does. For instance, the Dyche Museum at the University of Kansas, my childhood natural history museum, owns the taxidermied body of a U.S. cavalry horse that was the only member of the 7th Cavalry to survive the Battle of the Little Big Horn. For decades, this horse was billed as "the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn." Which, for obvious reasons, is both wildly inaccurate and pretty racist.
*The AMNH, while acknowledging the skill it took to produce a diorama like this, wasn't quite sure it lived up to their standards as a display of scientific educational value.
**Yes, there is something a little weird about snow falling on this scene.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.