Historical Fiction and Alternative Facts in "Lion Attacking a Dromedary"


Historical Fiction and Alternative Facts in "Lion Attacking a Dromedary"


            Around two months ago, I attended a symposium on the unveiling of the newly renovated diorama “Lion Attacking Dromedary,” formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I was tasked with doing some informal audience evaluation, mostly in the form of individual and small group interviews, and then following up with a blog post about my experiences. I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to attend the symposium, which was filled with fascinating lecturers and an enthusiastic audience. I was also lucky to have the chance to test my visitor evaluation skills, which were still rudimentary at that time. Since then, I have had the chance to hone my skills a little, and if I were to repeat the experience, I may have switched up my methodology a little. I may have had a prewritten list of open-ended questions, and I might have recorded the demographics of the visitors more closely. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the symposium, and learned more about the diorama and about practical evaluation skills than I ever could have from a textbook.

“It’s so sad that he had to kill those lions” said a preteen girl during the unveiling of the diorama.

            “What? No, he didn’t kill the lions” I said in amazement, after listening to hours of the morning session of the symposium, entitled “Historical and Intellectual Contexts of the Diorama.” I had assumed everyone knew the truth about the diorama.

            “So they killed him?” she asked in horror.

            “No, they probably all died separately and were just assembled together,” I said by way of clumsy explanation.

            “Oh, I thought it was something that really happened.”

            My initial reaction to this girl’s ignorance was one of surprise tinged with patronization. After spending the morning learning the truth about the diorama, I had forgotten that, despite all the facts, the provenance, and scientific data that color the scene as a work of fiction, it looks real. More than that, it feels real. As Nadia Khawaja, the Outreach Coordinator of the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh, would say later that day during the panel discussion, “people believe what they see,” and “what they see in the media confirms their beliefs”.

In a museum where families with children under 18 comprise approximately half of the visitors (according to onsite customer surveys collected since 2007 http://www.carnegiemnh.org/mission/visits.html)., this confusion between fact and fiction, history and art, is even more prevalent. While almost everyone who attended the symposium appeared to be adults over 35, the people wandering the halls of the museum appeared to be mostly young families with children.

The dramatic unveiling of the renovated diorama was sandwiched between two sets of lectures held in the theater in the Carnegie Museum of Art. In total, the symposium and unveiling lasted five hours. Coffee and refreshments were served during the breaks in the lectures. The population of visitors who chose to attend the symposium and sit quietly for several hours was not the same population of visitors who chose to explore the museum at their leisure, with plenty of breaks for little leg.

 The first time I saw the diorama at the entrance to  the Hall of African Wildlife, I was a child too young to read in-depth, and I remember it making sense, feeling true. It reminded me of the Lion King and Aladdin, but then, those felt real to me too. The frightening scene seemed like it could happen, maybe 100 years ago, maybe once upon a time, or maybe even at that very second. It takes place in a fictional, timeless, eternal North Africa with no sign of modernity, in a vast open desert with no sign of habitation, with an inaccurate combination of details that create a generalized image of an “Arab” person and scene, which can make it immersive, and captivating, but also deeply problematic.

If it only depicted animals, the inaccuracies would be less worrisome, but because it depicts a human being, with a human skull and teeth, it colors the way real people interact with other real people. In a natural history museum, especially in a diorama with real bodies, there is an inherent assumption of truth. A visitor typically views a taxidermy animal or a skeleton with the belief that an expert assembled the object for scientific and educational purposes, and that the information presented is true. The diorama stereotypes and generalizes “Arab” people as violent, aggressive, and uncivilized. Due to the diorama’s previous placement within a museum of natural history, the stereotype appears factual. As Ms. Khawaja put it, it’s just another depiction of an “angry brown man.”

The symposium occurred only a few days after the first travel ban, affecting seven Muslim-majority countries, was announced by the 45th President of the United States, there was even a protest in Pittsburgh at the exact same time. It occurred at a time when the concept of truth itself was called into question. While the museum has made great efforts to present Lion Attacking a Dromedary as a work of art, including a name change, updated and informative labels, and a move to the “spine” of the museums, the very juncture between Art and Natural History, is it enough? Will the average museum visitor stop and read the labels, will they understand the nuances, and most importantly, will they care? Will they care about the truth when the “alternative facts” feel true? I feel that the Carnegie Museum did an amazing job of correcting the mistakes of its past. It is now the responsibility of each visitor to take the time to read the labels carefully and explain them to their children, so that they may experience the diorama as fiction, not fact.

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