At first glance, they resemble nothing more than microbes or bugs swirling in a petri dish. Only upon closer inspection does it become apparent that the tiny figures in the row of three petri dishes are actually meant to represent human beings. Viewed from above, they are shown as silhouettes in black or red, in one dish seemingly engaged in the lively intricacies of ballroom dancing or jitterbugging.
Titled Culture Plate, this clever work of art by Israeli artist Michael Rovner puts humans under the microscope, as does the recently opened exhibition – A Brief History of Humankind – which it is a part of. Currently on view at the Israel Museum of Jerusalem, the attention-grabbing exhibition, creatively curated by Tania Coen-Uzzielli and Efrat Klein, simultaneously celebrates the 50th anniversary of the museum as it pays homage to Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari’s international bestselling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Indeed, there may be no museum anywhere on earth better equipped to highlight Harari’s sweeping and, some say, stunningly brilliant analysis of some hundreds of thousands of years of human history from the dawn of Homo Sapiens to the present. The rich and diverse holdings of the Israel Museum, consisting of some 700,000 items most of which are in storage, also span a timeline of hundreds of thousands of years and seem perfectly adapted to the task.
Besides Rovner’s petri dishes, objects on view include remains of the first-known use of fire in a communal setting, the first tools, the oldest known sickle, the first coins and other icons of civilization, right up to the invention of electricity and beyond. The show also incorporates the earliest evidence of writing and numerals, and features both an ancient scroll of the Ten Commandments and Albert Einstein’s scribbled manuscript of the Special Theory of Relativity.
There are also many examples of contemporary art by Israeli and international artists, highlighting themes of survival, extinction and the peculiar conventions of empires and modern society.
The show would not exist, of course, were it not for Harari’s book. A lecturer in world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he wrote Sapiens after his students complained they could not find a Hebrew-language book on the topic. When the book took off in Hebrew, he translated it into English and watched it become a bestseller again. It has since been translated into about 30 languages.
If brevity is the soul of wit, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind must stand as an exemplar of wit in a genre that must also include Stephen Hawking’s classic A Brief History of Time. Yet its author, who acted as a consultant to the museum exhibition, seems at his pithy best in the McLuhanesque musings and philosophical bon mots that adorn the walls of the exhibit. “The house is an artificial island that nature is not allowed to enter,” he tells us, along with, “Money is the only thing in the world that everybody trusts,” and the irreducible, “Wheat domesticated humans.”
Several important revolutions occurred as Homo Sapiens traipsed along the path to civilization, Harari reminds us. First came the Cognitive Revolution of about 70,000 years ago, in which we supposedly took a quantum leap in brain power, developed new language and communication skills, and began to speak, create myths and engage in abstract thought for the first time. A 60,000-year-old hyoid bone, a vital anatomical component that allows the human tongue to articulate sounds, is displayed to highlight this step.
Next came the Agricultural Revolution of about 10,000 years ago and the more recent Industrial Revolution and subsequent Scientific Revolution of the modern era.
The Israel Museum exhibition follows this rough chronology, attempting to illustrate each period in creative and artistic ways. However, there is little attempt to represent the many diverse threads that make up the fabric of Harari’s narrative. For example, he relates that humans had various “siblings,” such as Neanderthals, that we evidently wiped out almost everywhere we encountered them. However, DNA evidence also indicates a few Sapiens and Neanderthals mated and raised families some 30,000 or 40,000 years ago. As a result, each of us has some Neanderthal strands in our DNA.
The book also relates that human tribal warfare was endemic throughout prehistory and that, proportionally speaking, far fewer people die in wars today than at any other time in history. Humans were such great hunters and gatherers, apparently, that whenever we entered a new territory, mammoths and other great beasts disappeared from the region in short order.
Although the book’s fine points are not depicted in the show, the exhibition offers a robustly creative reflection in art and artifacts of its main ideas. As such, A Brief History of Humankind seems a curatorial tour-de-force and a perfect means of illustrating the breadth and depth of the museum’s vast collections. It remains on view until Jan. 2, 2016.