LEXINGTON, Kentucky - There may be no place on Earth more dedicated to the commerce and culture of the horse and that magnificent animal's relationship with human beings than this city in central Kentucky. So, it is fitting that a sweeping and ambitious exhibition of art and artifacts tracking that relationship over time would be held here.
The exhibition, "A Gift from the Desert,'' opened at the International Museum of the Horse (http://www.imh.org/), located in the Kentucky Horse Park, set amid more than 1,200 verdant acres on the edge of Lexington, in late May. I was fortunate enough to get a preview of "A Gift From the Desert'' from the big show's co-curator Cynthia Culbertson and curator Dr. Sandra Olsen, and a walk-through with the museum's president, Bill Cooke. It is a magnificent exhibition, and I recommend it to anyone who travels to or lives in the area or has the slightest degree of interest in horses: riding them, watching them race, learning about the key role they played in the spread of civilization from the Eurasian Steppes, to the Near East and beyond. Horses dramatically changed human culture everywhere they were introduced.
"A Gift from the Desert,'' subtitled "The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse,'' celebrates the role of the sleek but sturdy Arabian horse in commerce, transport and warfare. Perhaps not coincidently, the main underwriter and sponsor of the exhibition is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation. Chevron and ExxonMobile, whose leaders may or may not know a lot about horses but indisputably know a lot about petroleum, also chipped in. The exhibit runs through Oct. 15, closing shortly after the time the World Equestrian Games (Sept. 25-Oct.10) comes to the New World for the first time. The games will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park and telecast in part in the United States by NBC.
"A Gift from the Desert'' is the third major international show the museum has mounted, following the success of 2000's "Imperial China'' and 2003's "All the Queen's Horses'' - the queen in question being Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who keeps thoroughbreds near Lexington. This exhibition, which draws heavily on holdings from the British Museum, tapped other museums, galleries and private collectors, too - 28 lenders in all, from 19 countries. There are 406 objects for viewing, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, armor, swords, spears, saddles, a recreation of an Arabian desert camp, and the actual traditional Arab garb and dagger of T.E Lawrence - the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.
The art and artifacts on view are accompanied by signs and text explaining context and providing background. (There is also a handsome catalog on sale in the museum gift shop.) Most of the writing is useful and interesting, though the prose occasionally turns a shade of purple and seems driven nearly as much by present-day political agendas as by historical scholarship. Of the Islamic invasions of neighboring lands out of Arabia, the text notes "Conquered peoples welcomed the balance that generally characterized Arab rule ... revolutionary in that era for its (embrace) of human rights for both men and women.''
Uh-huh. And now?
To my eyes, the most impressive item in the exhibition is the Standard of Ur. This is a smallish, painted, 4,600-year-old box, remarkably well-preserved and fascinating to behold, depicting men, horses and chariots and dating back to Ur, the Mesopotamian city believed to be the world's first metropolis. Made of wood and adorned with shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, it is ordinarily kept in the British Museum. Simply put, this artifact is magnificent. Its antiquity alone would make it worth seeing, but the Standard of Ur is artfully made, as well. By itself, it would be worth the price of admission, but the other 405 objects are not too shabby, either.