Challenging Representations of People, Camels, and Cultures in Art

Written by
Kirstin Ohrt
Nov. 13, 2023

What began as a conference paper on camel iconography became part of an interdisciplinary effort to correct deep-rooted misrepresentations in art and its exhibition.  A&A graduate student Mathilde Sauquet presented a paper in 2021 at the Tufts University History of Art and Architecture graduate symposium "The Elephant in the Room: An Examination of Animals in Art" about the iconography of the Adoration of the Magi and their depiction with camels. Sauquet's paper examined the role of this depiction in shaping representations of people of color or of foreign origin from the Early Christian to late medieval period in the context of the universalist Christian agenda in Europe.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Jessica Landau, who had recently become research associate at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, was interested in learning more about Sauquet’s work, especially in relation to a problematic diorama featuring a camel on display at the Carnegie Museum. “She told me that she and her colleague were actively grappling with its history, meanings, and place in the museum,” said Sauquet. After several months of correspondence, Landau invited Sauquet to join a group of interdisciplinary contributors to a journal dedicated to addressing this problematic display.

Black and beige ceramic vessel showing a man leading a camel

Pelike with African figure leading a camel, fifth century B.C. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (© The State Hermitage Museum/photo by Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets, Vladimir Terebenin)

The diorama in question, Lion Attacking a Dromedary (known until 2017 as Arab Courier Attacked by Lions) by French taxidermist Édouard Verreaux had been on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh since 1898. The discovery of a human skull in the diorama when it was x-rayed during restoration in 2016 had no immediate impact on its being displayed; in fact, it was placed in a more prominent spot toward the museum's entrance when it was reintroduced in 2017.  However, the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 gave voice to some viewers’ discomfort upon seeing it. An ensuing Newsweek article published in September 2020 quoted the Carnegie Museum's interim director Stephen Tonsor as saying "For some people of color, their traumatic experience with racialized violence leads them to see this diorama primarily through that lens. And they've told us it's disturbing to them to see a person of color be violently attacked, especially when it's displayed in such a prominent place in the museum where you cannot avoid it." "Nowhere else in our dioramas do we see humans,” he added. “There are no white European humans in dioramas, and certainly no white European humans being attacked by animals."

The museum initially removed the diorama in 2020 before reinstalling it behind a curtain and with explanatory text in 2021, the year of the Tufts conference which brought the issue to Sauquet’s attention.

"When I was corresponding with Jessica Landau in spring 2021, I happened to be taking the 'Decolonizing Art History' seminar with Professor Irene Small and Professor Beatrice Kitzinger," explained Sauquet.  "As part of the class, I was able to present the diorama as a case study to the group, which elicited wonderful comments and contributions from my graduate colleagues, some having curatorial experience or modern colonial history expertise, for example. I got to write a couple of short reflection pieces which allowed me to think through the piece, and Professor Small's and Professor Kitzinger's insightful feedback, proved to be invaluable once I set out to write the journal article."

Landau’s journal proposal was accepted in May 2022. “In the meantime,” explained Sauquet, “Dr. Landau suggested we also submit our group as a session for CAA, which was also accepted, and allowed us to get feedback from that audience in February 2023.” “It was also a great opportunity to meet in person for the first time,” she added.  Other participants in the group included professor of Art History Katie Hornstein (Dartmouth), Inequality in America Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow Aja Lans (Harvard), conservation science researcher Simon Black (University of Kent), professor of environmental studies and gender studies Kari Weil (Wesleyan), evolutionary biologist Bruce Patterson (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago). The group's efforts culminated in the special issue of the July 2023 journal Curator: The Museum Journal .

The interdisciplinary group presented the panel “Curating Controversy: Interrogating Lion Attacking a Dromedary at Carnegie Museum of Natural History,” at which Sauquet presented a paper titled “Picturing the Other: a pre-modern history of camels and dromedaries in art.”

Stained glass window with circular scene involving a camel

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, detail from the stained-glass window in the northern aisle, 12th century. Canterbury Cathedral (© University of Michigan Library Digital Collections).

Through an iconographic survey tracing the depiction of camels and dromedaries from ancient artifacts to medieval art and architecture, Sauquet highlighted themes of otherness and inferiority.  The Lion Attacking a Dromedary diorama reinforced this trope, Sauquet argued. "If the Persian camel rider of Ancient Greece and Rome stood as an enemy to defeat, the black camel attendant always occupied the lowest societal role. And if the camels of Sheba identified the Queen's travel from a distant land, the late medieval camel with a Black King betrayed the universalist agenda of the Catholic church at the dawn of the slave trade. I believe that these ancient and medieval examples have demonstrated a recurring association between camels and concepts of general foreignness, long-distance travel as well as social inferiority," Sauquet concluded. "It is quite possible that the Verreaux brothers—and their audiences—were aware of premodern artistic precedents that associated camels with people of color and drew on this motif and its connotations of otherness and social inferiority to serve their own colonialist agenda."

Two months after the journal's publication, in September 2023, Carnegie Museum’s board voted to remove the exhibit and change its policy on exhibiting human remains. Currently posted on the Carnegie Museums’s website is the notice: “DIORAMA UPDATE: Carnegie Museum of Natural History has removed the Lion Attacking a Dromedary diorama from view. The human head that was previously part of this diorama was sculpted around a person’s skull. Their skull has been permanently removed as part of the museum’s new policy on equitable treatment of human remains.  Small samples from this individual’s teeth will be used to conduct stable isotope analysis. If successful, the results will help us determine if this person grew up in Northern Africa and will aid us in future efforts to return them to their homeland.”

Needless to say, Sauquet and her colleagues are pleased with this result. “It's really great to see institutions finally prioritize human dignity over sensationalist displays and hackneyed museum practices,” Sauquet said. “Following the announcement of the Carnegie, the Penn Museum also announced it will no longer exhibit human remains - hopefully these changes encourage other museums to do the same.”