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“An Exhibition 40,000 Years In The Making”

I don’t usually associate the British, let alone the venerable British Museum, with hype. But that headline quote is the tag line for what seems to a very worthy, and interesting, exhibition called Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind.  I guess it says something about the marketing minds at the BM, and the need to fight for attention in today’s world.

BM-bisonIce Age Art starts on Thursday. The BM has a goal here: to elevate the objects — which include the oldest known ceramic figures in the world, plus the oldest known portrait and figurative pieces, all of which were created over 20,000 years ago — in the show from artifact to art. The curator, Jill Cook, says in the description, “By looking at the oldest European sculptures and drawings we are looking at the deep history of how our brains began to store, transform and communicate ideas as visual images. The exhibition will show that we can recognize and appreciate these images. Even if their messages and intentions are lost to us the skill and artistry will still astonish the viewer.”

There’s a lot more background in the press release. But as a taste here are two object, both made about 20,000 years ago. On the left is a bison sculpted from mammoth ivory, found at Zaraysk, Russia, and on the right is a female figure, sculpted from steatite, found at Grimaldi, Italy. There’s a very short video, available at the first link above, which shows additional images (quickly).

The exhibition also includes works by Picasso, Moore, Matisse and other major modern artists “to establish these connections across time, highlighting the fundamental human desire to create works of great beauty. This can be appreciated in a striking drawing of two deer engraved on a piece of bone found in the cave of Le Chaffaud, Vienne, France,” the BM says.

BM-femaleCook told the Associated Press that the Ice Age creators “…are fully modern humans. What these works of art show is that they have a visual brain capable of imagination and creativity. They really are us. They are our ancestors.”

The AP story, as posted on the San Francisco Chronicle site, has a slide show of other object in the exhibition.

Now, most museums that I know measure the time frame for organizing an exhibit from the time a curator starts working on it — not the date of the art involved. We should keep it that way, but for this, to catch more attention, let’s make an exception.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the British Museum



  1. Any exhibit that encourage a discussion is commendable. I would like to see this one for that reason. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  2. Steve Miller says:

    I expected from the title to read about an exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art, because the phrase “40,000 years in the making” has been well-used in Australia in this context. Please google 40,000 years in the making Aboriginal.
    Yet another example of the British Museum plundering Indigenous cultures without recognition.
    Even more pathetic that they appropriate the phrase as an attempt to connect ancient and modern art. Like traditional practice and beliefs really, something mocked, rejected or looked down upon by the “civilised” world.
    A poor effort also by the blogger. It’s always wise to check the originality of marketing people, especially in the public service.

  3. Valerie Kabov says:

    Have to agree with both Steve in reference to “40,000 years” and Australian Aborigines and it is definitively something the curators would have been and or should have been aware of especially in the specific context of this kind of exhibition. The phrase and the number have been used with a sense of empowerment, Cecilia, by Aborigines and the advocates of their rights, so you rest easy there. This is not just a hot topic du jour, this is profoundly relevant to the way we see art history, role of art in the history of humanity and the unity of humanity in art and through art.

    BM should have thought better about the title, needless to say but the concept of the exhibition and the intent to engage broader audience is worthy…one waits to see if the exhibition itself is as successful as its promise…

  4. David Lovegrove says:

    The phrase ” (insert years here) years in the making” is an old Hollywood marketing cliche (Gone with the Wind et al). It’s just a catchy dated and slightly kitsch tongue in cheek use of the old cliche.
    Regards the exhibition, incredible as it may seem to those with limited reading of history and archeology, Europeans have a 40,000 year history of their own and this is an incredibly exciting chance to see artworks from that incredible gulf of human time.

    • Steve Miller says:

      David, the difference is that Australian Aboriginal art has an unbroken continuous existence, despite the past 225 of often deliberate cultural disruption. This is not as folk craft but as a vibrant living culture. The British Museum exhibition seeks to establish such a link as new thinking about rock art related to contemporary European art, something only a European few artists were drawn to for direct inspiration.
      As for the Hollywood reference, you are stating the obvious. By making it “40,000 years” Australian Aboriginal art was using wit (!) to subvert the paradigm ie “It toook more than two years to make this movie, it must be amazing!”
      I believe the British Museum exhibition seeks to define European credentials in art longevity and continuity ahead of its partnership exhibition with the National Museum of Australia.

  5. David Lovegrove says:

    Steve, I see what you mean, I didnt realize the phrase had been used for Indigenous exhibitions in Australia.
    Gives things a different complexion if the British museum is having a partnership exhibition at the National Museum of Australia ( this same Cave Art exhibition?).
    Personally don’t see why exhibitions of such extreme interest as cave art tens of thousands of years old has to be marketed as if its some new line of product. I just want to see it!

    • Steve Miller says:

      David: The British Museum and the National Museum of Australia do have a relationship, mainly about the return of stolen artefacts under the guise of “acheological/anthopoligical expeditions” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly human remains. I believe the partnership is for a proposed exhibition at the British Museum about Australian Aboriginal people past and present, with National Museum of Oz providing advice on the British Museum’s extensive Aboriginal collection and some objects/artworks.
      Celia: There’s a lot of interpretation in your posts evident in the “imagine” and the “thinking”, so here’s one for you:
      ” . . .this brain developed in modern humans (in Africa around 100,000 years ago)”
      In other words, Australian Aboriginal people are distinct due to isolation (until 225 years ago) and can therefore draw direct lineage in art and culture for 40,000 years plus which most cultures cannot. Indeed some archeological findings in Australia suggest 60,000 years (use of ochre for ceremonial body paint) and over 100,000 years. No one’s done anything to our brains! There is also more complexity to the Out of Africa concept than you suggest.
      I hope the exhibition I mention does go ahead at the British Museum, it is clearly needed to address many eurocentric “thinking” and “imaginings” about one of the world’s oldest living cultures.

  6. I wonder if something might have gone missing here. Let’s hear from Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum:

    “The museum shows us that people everywhere and through time enjoy various forms of art and
    decoration…we RARELY PAUSE TO ASK what art was like at the very start. When and why did it begin? …
    The Museum’s exhibition Ice age Art: Arrival of the modern mind explores these questions and reveals that
    the answer lies in our brains… Archaeology shows that this brain developed in modern humans in Africa
    around 100,000 years ago, along with the first signs of art… towards the end of the last Ice Age, 45,000
    years ago; their need to forge new relationships within and between their social groups triggered the
    representation of animals, people and imaginary beings in paintings, drawings and sculpture”.

    I take from this that the intent of the exhibition lies far deeper than any ethnic group – but about all of us, out of Africa.

    And the 40,000 year blurb means, I think, that it has taken this long for our brains to be able to look at these items in this way. After 5000 years of our cultural development, it’s only been in the last 20 years that neuro-biologists have been able to observe our brain in real time, with fMRI and micro-electrodes etc, to determine with any certainty that our brain is indeed the seat of our mind, and the root of culture.

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