The Horse


of an Exhibition

by Beverly Serrell

Published on April 22, 2011, Modified on August 08, 2011

  • Description:

    Review of The Horse

    by Beverly Serrell (BS), Barbara Becker (BB) and Dianne Hanau-Strain (DH-S)

    (The Horse is one in a series of exhibitions created as collaborations between the Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History; others include Gold, Pearls, Water and Darwin.)

    We all had seen The Horse at the Field Museum—at different times in early spring 2011 and for different reasons. We didn’t go with the idea in mind of doing a review for ExhibitFiles, but we got together later and thought we’d share our conversation.

    BS I went with my friend Nancy, who is a member, and we got in free. We’ve been enjoying the process of visiting exhibits and critiquing them together, and although Nancy is not a “museum person,” she has a background in graphic communication. She now claims that going with me has spoiled her attitude about visiting exhibitions without being critical and questioning.

    BB I went because I’d heard that Dianne liked it and Beverly didn’t, and I wanted to see what I thought for myself. I’m a member, so I was able to stop by one afternoon.

    DH-S I went alone to The Horse quite casually because I had a pass (probably wouldn’t have paid extra) and was tired (and bored) after going through the Gold exhibit in the next hall. I didn’t plan on looking at it with a critical eye.

    BS I love horses! Since I can remember. I’ve also ridden and owned horses for a long time.

    BB I love horses, too, in many ways—sensory, historical and scientific.

    DH-S And I had an imaginary horse as a child.

    BS Lots of people love horses. The exhibition should have started with the Love.

    DH-S  Good point. I actually skipped the entrance section. I figured it was the standard evolution spiel, and I didn’t want to take the time. Was there a theme statement anywhere there?

    BS Yes, something to the effect that humans and horses have shared a long history and influenced each other. But that certainly leaves a lot of room to talk about almost anything, which they did.

    BB There was no Big Idea. “Horses,” or even “Horses and People,” was not enough, and it showed in unclear organization and hierarchy—and haphazard storytelling. The evolution and archaeology stories related directly to my academic background though, so I did take the time to look at those.

    DH-S I didn’t find the (dis)organizational structure as much of a weakness as you did—it reminded me of the DK Eyewitness book format, a children’s encyclopedia-type overview with lots of interesting little details to browse through.

    BB Too many details!—it began to seem like a bunch of fun facts after a while. But the large focus objects were engaging: models of extinct horses; cave paintings on textured walls; skeletons of horse and man; full-sized horse models; beautiful horse appointments; a pretty cool archaeological dig site with model.

    DH-S I liked the big stuff, too: video model, skeletons and spirituality sections, wonderful cross-cultural selection of artifacts, especially the armor, and some of the little stuff like the Muybridge photos of horse locomotion.

    BS My favorites were the big horse video, especially showing the digestive tract “X-ray” with the hay going in one end and the poop coming out the other (and being quickly swept up). Too bad there was no photography allowed. I especially wanted a photo-op next to the big horse half-model and the human and horse skeletons.

    DH-S The horse mannequins—they looked fake. Either stuff them or stylize them.

    BB I recognized many of the cultural stories, and it was satisfying to see some of the artifacts. I enjoyed the collection of videos at the end (of horse showmanship), but I think it could have been a little more dramatic!

    BS The videos at the end were good but missed opportunities to be great. Yes, more drama needed. They seemed almost like afterthoughts because they weren’t about what the curators were interested in.  

    DH-S I found the video choices—cowgirl, disabled kids, urban police officer—surprising and didn’t mind that they were so gently done. But some of the videos were shown at the wrong aspect ratio—stretched to fit a wide-screen monitor—making folks look fat and bloated. It’s bad enough in a bar but inexcusable in a museum.

    BB I liked how the section labels were printed on fabric.

    BS I liked it, but Nancy didn’t. She thought it made them harder to read because of the waviness.

    DH-S I liked them too, but the style didn’t quite fit with the rest of the elements . . . but, then, the design was a bit of a hodgepodge.
    BB The majority of subtitles on the reading-rail labels seemed to be “clever” phrases that didn’t tell me anything. Individual components were not cohesive or the best stories were buried. Dim lighting and bad contrast made many of the labels hard to read. And give me a break with all those "What is it?” and “Did you know” labels? Gag!

    BS The catchy titles really grated on me. They called way too much attention to themselves. And those heavy lift-up labels were a lame excuse for interactivity.  

    DH-S And what were those saddles doing at the end? Were you allowed to sit on them and take pictures there?

    BS Yes, but they missed an opportunity to do something more, not just a blank wall behind the saddles.

    BB In the end, I wasn’t in control of my own experience; instead I was presented with an encyclopedia of beautiful objects with only the vaguest guide. Or a guide I had to work too hard to understand. I think they missed the “drama” (“romance?”) of the horse—huge, snorting, galloping, gorgeous creatures. After all, train engines were first referred to as “iron horses” because they shared the same characteristics.
    BS Overall, there was no orientation or obsession about the ideas. No passion. Very little at stake. Dull. No goose bumps. No tears. Well, maybe for Barbaro, the racehorse.

    BB It was trying to do too much and didn’t do most of it with enough “air” or grace.

    BS Seemed like a by-the-numbers, everything-you-should-know-about, big, encyclopedic exhibition with one name, like Amber, Cats, Darwin, Diamonds, Dogs, Einstein, Gold, Mammoths, Spiders, Water, Wolves. The single topic seems to give them license to not have or stick to a Big Idea.

    DH-S The artifacts were stunning and actually stretched my understanding—I came in with a cowboy-movie concept of horses and their people and left with a much richer and multicultural perspective. On the other hand, while I wasn’t bored, I never got excited either. Bland. Predictable. Could this be what happens with a collaborative project? They’ve all been credible exhibits, but without heart. Does an exhibit need to grow from a more personal passion to ignite the visitor? Or is the scale or the topic part of the problem? Lots to think about here.

Latest Comments (5)

information on thumbnail image

by Beverly Serrell - April 22, 2011

‘Nahele’,metal_sculpture_by_—Deborah_Butterfield—,1986,—TheContemporaryMuseum,Honolulu—.jpg‎ (300 × 225 pixels, file size: 14 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
‘Nahele’, metal sculpture by Deborah Butterfield, 1986, The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu Copyright

BS There was a Deborah Butterfield horse sculpture at the end of the exhibition, but not this one. I love her horse sculptures.

More about The Horse

by Wendy Pollock - April 25, 2011

A collaborative review – what a good way to capture multiple perspectives. Thank you! And for images and more about the exhibition, readers can check here:

interesting format

by Kathleen Mclean - April 26, 2011

and it really helps me see a bigger picture. Thanks. and speaking of “seeing,” it would be great to see some installation shots. Was photography prohibited?

no photos

by Beverly Serrell - April 26, 2011

Photos were only allowed at the saddles area, and I forgot to take one there. Sorry!

photo option?

by Peter Samis - May 09, 2011

Perhaps the Field could be contacted and some of their PR photos (or installation shots) could be posted here.

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