The taxidermy diorama ‘Arab Courier’ is displayed prominently in Pittsburgh Museum and is considered one of the best examples of preserved barbary lions, having two animals in the exhibit in the moments of an attack on a man riding an Arabian camel. Whether you like taxidermy or not, this is a definitive example of the 19th century art form which was awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris on its first presentation by Jules Verreaux to the public in 1867.
The taxidermy diorama was shipped to New York City two years later obtained by the American Museum of Natural History, and acquired in 1899, by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, its current home.
The piece is somewhat controversial, being made by the notorious Verreaux brothers. The Verreaux studio had certainly exhibited unacceptable specimens during their career, repellent even to less-enlightened Victorian Society, most notoriously including the body of a human tribesman in one exhibit. At one time the Arab Courier exhibit itself was suspected of incorporating a real human body (the camel rider), alongside more accepted animal parts associated with the other subjects. Even to this day the museum was confident that the teeth inserted in the man’s head, and visible in the shocked expression represented on his face, were real.
The exhibit, has been stored in a standard glass case, but in 2017 was removed for restoration work to address deterioration in the materials. The opportunity was taken to run a CT scan of the subjects. To the museum’s surprise, the camel and the two lions included actual bones within the sub-frame of the bodies around which the taxidermy skins had been stitched.
Less welcome for the museum curators was the discovery that the head of the courier himself was in fact, macabrely, a human skull.
And what of the barbary lions? The museum has been approached in the past for skin samples form these taxidermy animals. On this occasion the museum was suitably encouraged to offer samples for DNA analysis and the restoration activity gave first access to the skins on this famous exhibit. Could these actually be two barbary lions?
Ross, D. (2017) 150-year-old Diorama Surprises Scientists With Human Remains. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/taxidermy-carnegie-museum-skull/