New York, N.Y., May 14, 2008 -- Even though many of you have spent a lot of time with horses over the years, you'll still learn new things about your favorite animal in an enjoyable way by taking in "The Horse," an exciting exhibition that opens May 17 at the American Museum of Natural History.
Before I went to the press preview, I was a little skeptical about finding any eye-openers in the display, considering that I have spent most of my life around horses, not to mention photographing and writing about them for a living. But this tour de force was designed to please and intrigue everyone, from neophytes to experts.
It worked! I was fascinated. You might be tempted to skip some of the attractions, such as the interactive breed chart, but it's fun to play with them, even if you know all this stuff. Speaking of playing, kids will really enjoy going through, whether they're wanna-be's or young show ring veterans. No matter how many ribbons they've won, I'll bet they've never seen anything like the fire engine that horses used to pull through the streets at a gallop, or the fabulously detailed Samurai saddle (pretty, but it looks very uncomfortable.)
I asked Ellen Futter, the museum's president, about the institution's goal in presenting the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 4.
The exhibition draws you in with a dynamic close-up of a cantering horse; you hear his hoofbeats, see the ripples of his skin and practically breathe in the dust rising from the ground as he moves.
The next stop is one of the dioramas for which the museum is justifiably famous. Three prehistoric horses graze and browse in an ancient meadow, looking not too far removed from our current horses and ponies--though none of ours has three toes. Can you imagine what your farrier would charge for shoeing that?
But what fascinated me more than anything else in the exhibition was the imaginative video of a horse standing quietly and occasionally eating some hay. Doctored with animation so you can see his skeleton and digestive system, it takes you through the whole chewing, swallowing, etc. process. You watch manure being formed and excreted, giving you a better understanding of the process which, according to the exhibit, produces 45 pounds of manure a day.
Harry Borrelli, interactive designer for the museum, told me what it took to produce this video project.
And let me add one thing to what he said: patience. This process and its result are such a big part of how modern museums do things. They are, in effect, the living dioramas of today. You find yourself being entertained as well as educated.
Other interactive features include a chart so you can measure yourself in hands, and a lever that measures your strength against one horse power (which equates to a draft horse lifting 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute). My rating was pitiful, 0.04. Ouch! I better pick up my weights again.
Oh, speaking of dioramas, I spoke with Dr. Sandra Olsen, the curator of anthropology at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History. She was standing in front of a depiction of a Kazakhstan dig she is involved with where the past of a horse-oriented civilization is being uncovered. Actually, it sounds as if the present civilization there is not too far removed from its past. The villagers now have motorized vehicles (though no TV yet) but their lives still revolve around the horses they use for everything (including, unfortunately, food). Mares' milk, rich in vitamins, is the drink of choice.
Domestication of horses began on the Eurasian steppes "because there weren't wild horses anywhere else," Sandra explained to me. Remember, while horses once ran wild in North America, there were none left until the Spanish conquistadors made their appearance and reintroduced them to the Western Hemisphere.
In the area where Sandra has been digging, prehistoric residents' main diet was horse, but "they began to realize instead of being hunters, chasing wild horses, it would make sense to domesticate them and keep them in villages. That's why we started looking in northern Kazakhstan" for the roots of horse-oriented culture.