Take a walk through time

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Take a walk through time

At the entrance of the “Treasures of the World’s Cultures” exhibit is a glass case illuminating two rocks. One looks ordinary, gray and rough. The other is a pale quartz chiseled into an oblong shape, like the head of a spear.

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Published: Sat 21 Apr 2012, 10:20 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 1:49 AM

The guide first points out the gray rock, the one that wouldn’t catch notice lying on the side of the road.

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum; Salama Al Shamsi, Project Manager, Cultural Department; Rita Aoun Abdo, Executive Director, Cultural Department; Brendan Moore, Curator, British Museum; at the Treasures of the World’s Cultures Exhibition. -KT photo by Nezar Balout

“This is the beginning of material culture,” says Brendan Moore, curator of the exhibit. “Without stone tools like this, we would have nothing around us. We wouldn’t have this exhibition; we wouldn’t have the great city of Abu Dhabi. This is where humans begin to think, to make objects so they can express themselves and through which they can create existence.”

Such an introduction merits the rock a closer look. This time, sharp edges come into view. The relic is actually a stone chopping tool dating back to the Lower Palaeolithic Era, about 1.8 to 2 million years old. Historians regard this tool as the first technology invented by man, used to smash bones, cut meat and chop wood.

Now Moore turns to the pale spearhead-shaped stone beside it and jumps ahead a million or so years. “This is the next stage,” he says, identifying the tool as a hand axe from 800,000 years ago. “It is, arguably, the beginning of art because now we have a subtler, more shaped tool which remains functional, but also begins to take on symbolic meaning.” He goes on to explain how the degree of craftsmanship evident on the tool came to be associated with the possessor’s skill or status.

These two objects usher the visitor into a collection of human-made treasures accumulated over millennia from every corner of the world. The “Treasures of the World’s Cultures” exhibition, currently open to the public at the Manarat Al Saadiyat venue in Saadiyat Cultural District, hopes to create the experience of “walking around the world and through time,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

“It’s at the very heart of what museums are about—what the British Museum was about and what the Zayed National Museum will be about. It’s the idea that the whole world is one world, that we’re all citizens of one global world. If you want to understand that world, you have to think of every part of its history as our history.”

The exhibition, sponsored by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA), is a collaborative effort between the British museum and local institutions including Al Ain National Museum and Sharjah Archaeology Museum. Together, they have lent over 250 items of historical and cultural value spanning all of recorded time and geography. The exhibition is the second in a series of events hosted by ADTCA, which last year staged the “Splendors of Mesopotamia” exhibit, building up to the 2016 opening of Zayed National Museum in Saadiyat Cultural District. “That museum will look at the achievements of Sheikh Zayed and the achievements of the Emirates through time. It will be organized by themes that are constant themes across the whole of humanity: themes of leadership and what it means to be a ruler and to run a state; themes of faith, and how every society has a notion of God and how it expresses that notion; themes of knowledge and learning, and how they are passed on,” explains Mr. MacGregor.

Many of the “Treasures of the World’s Cultures” have also been chosen to reflect the universal themes underpinning Zayed National Museum. These themes can be traced through each section of the exhibition, six of which are based on geographical regions and one that represents the modern-day world. The stone tools displayed near the entrance mark the beginning of the Africa section, a fitting arrangement as historians believe the human race first emerged from East Africa two million years ago.

“That is where the whole story—what it means to be a human—begins. It’s because we were able to make things that we were able to shape the world, to travel to other parts of the world from Africa and to create the society which we lived in,” says Mr. MacGregor. Indeed, the African hand axe (the second of the stone tools) traveled with humans as they spread out to the Middle East, Europe and Asia, remaining in use for 750,000 years. No other artifact in the history of man has been used for such a long period of time, over such a wide geographical expanse.

Most other objects in the exhibition cannot boast such historical impact, yet they are recognizable as treasures nonetheless. As Mr. Moore asserts, the hand axe reveals an artistic impulse that is evident in every exhibition item that follows. Some of these artifacts no longer have a place in the modern world, as a stroll through the collection of Egyptian funerary relics demonstrates. Other objects, however, can be identified as ancient predecessors of things people still use and love.

A 2000-year-old limestone incense-burner— a familiar item for local residents— is displayed in the Middle East section. Mr. Moore stops by it to explain the importance of the incense trade to the Arabian Peninsula, which along with the eastern tip of Africa is the only place frankincense and myrrh can grow.

“This is what first brought trade and commerce across the Arabian Peninsula,” he remarks, going on to describe the wealth and the warfare that followed in its wake. Even the exhibit’s most unassuming objects tie into complex historical episodes, and Mr. Moore hopes that objects like the incense-burner will help visitors explore regional history in a global context.

Among the exhibit’s treasures, the grand mingles with the ordinary. A seven-foot statue of the wine-god Dionysus shares space with a life-sized sculpture of two greyhounds at play; both were carved from marble at the height of the Roman Empire. Each section contains unique regional items, yet perceptive visitors will pick up on trends that carry from one part of the exhibition to another. In the Asia section, Moore draws attention to a Ming Dynasty-era dish decorated with blue dragons, horses, and Arabic script reading “God who gives health” and “God the healer”.

“Porcelain was one of the great inventions to come out of China,” he says. “Blue and white porcelain is perhaps the export object par excellence of the world, at any time. It was manufactured at first principally for Middle Eastern markets. The ideas caught on, they were reinvented, and the format was adopted around Asia and indeed around the world.” In fact, two other sections of the exhibition feature the trademark blue-and-white-design ceramics.

The exhibit culminates in a section for the modern world, where the confluence of different artistic and cultural traditions is difficult to miss. At one end of the room is a car hood painted with traditional Native American patterns; at the other, a pair of bone-shaped Tiffany’s candlesticks inspired by an ancient Roman crypt. The “Treasures of the World’s Cultures” offers the opportunity to “remember how different the world is for different people at different times,” as Mr. MacGregor says. But visitors may also come to realise how all of these objects came, in a manner of speaking, from the same place.


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