Issue #62

Last Update February 28, 2009

Reviews Horses by Gert Innsry July 13 2008 The American Museum of Natural History has mounted an ambitious exhibition on the horse and its impact on human civilization. Although it falls short of its goals, this is an interesting and well-mounted exhibit, one that will be of interest to children ad adults alike. Mixing the disciplines of paleontology, archaeology, anthropology and history, the museum traces the evolution of the horse, shows its modern anatomy in detail, discusses the horse in pre-history, its eventual domestication and the historic relationship between man and equus. Models, skeletons, dioramas, and video are all used to convey the knowledge the Museum is intent on imparting.

The exhibit is most successful in the areas of the Museums strengths: evolution and anatomy. The evolution of modern equus is presented with an emphasis on cladistics that is the hallmark of AMNH paleontology. Dioramas of early horses show the similarities and differences of the several pre-modern species, and a full-sized model of the modern horse (as well as a horse skeleton with anatomical features linked to the equivalent features in a human skeleton), supplement the written materials to provide a clear picture of horse development.

It is the connection between horse and man that is a bit disappointing. Descriptions of early horse hunting are fascinating, especially the reproductions of cave painting whose artistic quality and accurate portrayals are startling and beautiful. A video describing the difficulty in nailing down just when the horse was domesticated is full of detail and some startling statements, such as the fact that, unlike almost all other domesticated animals, the morphology of the domesticated horse is essentially indistinguishable from that of the wild horse, making early evidence of horse use difficult to interpret. But there is no serious attempt to describe just what might have gone into domestication, how that domestication would have affected the structure of primitive societies, and why domestication might have occurred in the first place. Some of these issues are touched upon in exhibits and discussions of the horse in medieval European and Japanese Samurai societies, but thousands of years of man-horses commensality are elided.

There are sections of the exhibit devoted to Mongolian nomadic life, which was centered on the horse, and where the horse was transportation, food, drink and shelter in harsh environment. Similarly, displays of the Plains Indians show the impact of the horse on their cultures. Horse racing (thoroughbred and standardbred) are also covered. Along the way, some interesting light is shed on phrases in the English language, relating “Come down off your high horse” to a period when only nobility were allowed to have riding horses, for example A model showing and naming all of the pieces of armor of a knight’s steed include the crupper, the armor covering the horse’s hind end. It’s possible that the phrase “to come a cropper”, or have something disastrous happen to you, refers to being knocked out of the saddle and over the horse’s rear by a lance in a battle or tourney.

This is an exhibition well worth seeing for adults and children. The fact that the sociological content is thin should not be a deterrent.

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