A Catalyst for Nostalgia: Lion Attacking a Dromedary
“I’ve been coming to visit this piece for years,” was the shared sentiment that grew quite repetitious, but no less interesting, during my day of conducting visitor evaluations and interviews at the grand unveiling of the reimagined Lion Attacking a Dromedary. I had heard the same thing in slightly different words nearly a dozen times by the day’s end. I found, through conducting interviews, that the group in attendance largely felt connected to the piece— it was a catalyst for a shared sense of nostalgia, and I felt it too.
There was one attendee in particular; they had traveled with their whole family to come to the symposium because the piece, and the Carnegie Natural History Museum as a whole, was so important to them. They recounted the feeling of seeing the piece now known as Lion Attacking a Dromedary for the first time—“It was overwhelming, seeing this intensely dramatic moment right in front of you, acted out like a freeze frame at the climax of a play; it took me to a different place entirely. I fell in love with it, and I’ve been visiting it ever since, bringing friends and family along too.” That particular attendee boasted that they knew everything there was to know about the diorama. Another symposium attendee brought their adult son along. They said “I’ve been visiting the diorama since I was a child, then when he [their son] was old enough, I brought him and his wife. I can’t wait to bring my grand kids one day too.”
I could remember my first time seeing the piece as well. I was on a girl scouts field trip in second grade, and was overcome with the drama most attendees I interviewed identified with. It incited fear in me—the same fear the fictive moment portrayed in the eyes of the courier. In high school I would volunteer at the CMNH, and always looked forward to being in the hall where Lion Attacking a Dromedary was situated. As a child, I couldn’t see how problematic its location was, but after sitting in on the lectures throughout the day at the symposium, I was enlightened to the plethora of problems surrounding the piece, its name, and its location.
After the first round of lectures in the morning, on topics varying from orientalism and exoticism to the nuances of conservation, I returned to most of the attendees I interviewed during the opening refreshments to see if their view had changed (like mine). Unsurprisingly, we found ourselves in the same boat. Issues were brought to light that we hadn’t considered, but we were happy they were resolved. Even the self-proclaimed expert on the piece was blown away by what they had learned during the symposium. With new information, excitement grew for the unveiling of the reimagined piece.
As the red curtains were pulled back, a small crowd of adults watched with wide child eyes. It was, and is, beautiful. But, what the attendees I had the chance to talk to were most pleased with was not the new shiny clean quality of the pieces in the diorama, rather, its new location where it could attract all of the attention it deserved.
Lion Attacking a Dromedary is so much more than a piece in a museum, it is a defining icon for our museum. It functions as a catalyst for waves of memories for Pittsburgh locals and travelers alike, and its reimagining benefits its message, its history, and its audience.
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