Many of the dioramas in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History portray scenes that remind visitors of the spellbinding beauty and grandeur of Africa’s wildlife and wild places. But there is one diorama here that departs from this theme, and instead confronts the viewer with the grittier side of the natural world.
In this diorama, a huge spotted hyena strolls nervously towards the carcass of a zebra with the intention of muscling in on the macabre meal, which is being swarmed over by a flock of quarrelsome vultures. Many of these gore guzzling birds squabble and fight amongst themselves, pushing each other out of the way to reach the best feeding spot.
At the sidelines of this sinister scene gathers a motley bunch of opportunists, including a hideous pair of maribou storks, a pair of plucky bright-eyed little jackals, and a bemused looking white-necked raven. Here they wait patiently for the right moment to move in to grab some of the morbid morsels away from the voracious vultures.
But there is more than meets the eye with this diorama. If you look closely at the painted background, the motive for the hyena’s cautiousness suddenly becomes clear. A pair of lions can be seen faintly in the background, striding purposefully closer towards the kill. The presence of these felines adds an undercurrent of tension to the scene and seems to imply that this assembly of diners will soon be chased from their meal and have to return later to pick over the leftovers.
The scene takes place on the Serengeti plains of Tanzania, where these taxidermy specimens were collected over 100 years ago by the famous naturalist and taxidermist Carl Akeley. The beautifully painted background that is so evocative of the expansive African savannah was produced much later in the 1930s by the museum’s painter, James Perry Wilson.
Wilson studied the photographs taken by Akeley closely to ensure accuracy, even managing to capture the time of the day of the scene through his meticulous attention to detail. The careful portrayal of the lighting and positioning of the sun in this artwork suggests the gathering of this carrion-craving crowd to be roughly around midday.