Animals in Antiquity exhibition explores meanings humans have associated with animals over time
The desire to assign symbolic meanings to animals that share our world links human cultures across time.
Whether rendered figuratively or abstractly, depictions of animals remind us not only of themselves, but also of the qualities and traits we assign to them. They can illustrate human traits—the coyote as the trickster, the aloof cat—and teach children behaviors and ideals from fables.
Humans have worshipped animals, hunted and consumed them for food, and altered the natural environments of animals, all in the name of humanity.
In a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder Art Museum and the CU Museum of Natural History, the exhibition Animals in Antiquity will explore the relationships between humans and animals through the ages. The exhibition is on view at the Museum of Natural History through September 2016.
Curated by Erin Baxter, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, the exhibition is a celebration of animals in art and animals as artifacts and features about 30 pieces from both museum collections.
The artifacts span the last 4,000 years of human history and are from around the Earth, including China, Greece, Rome, Crete, Mexico and southern New Mexico.
“The earliest art in the world is of animals,” said Baxter. “When humans for the first time made representational art on the walls of a cave, they chose animals as their subject matter. The artifacts in the exhibit are at the nexus of a variety of crossroads that link different fields and ideas and with people across time.”
When humans for the first time made representational art on the walls of a cave, they chose animals as their subject matter.”
Take the owl, for example. In one culture, the owl means wisdom, while an owl in another culture is seen as a harbinger of death.
Animals in Antiquity was curated through multiple lenses of interpretation. What does it mean for the people who made a pot with the image of an owl on it? What does it mean to the archeologist who found the pot? From a biological standpoint, what does the pot reveal about what the environment was like in A.D. 900 in central Mexico?
“When they come to the exhibit, I’d like people to look at animals from a different perspective,” said Baxter. “They’re our companions, our food, a source of labor. Animals have had incredibly long relationships with people that are both fraught and positive.”
Kenna Bruner is a writer with Strategic Marketing Communications at CU-Boulder. For a map showing the location of the Animals in Antiquity exhibit, click here.