Ice Age Art at the British Museum (with kids)

what’re you looking at eh?

A week after I handed over my tenner for a ticket, we finally got to see the British Museum’s Ice Age Art exhibition. In preparation we’d watched the Culture Show Special and now I wish we’d had the sort of closed door access the TV show had.

I’m not naive enough to think that an exhibition on the 3rd floor of the reading rooms was ever going to be easily accessible for kids but right down to the design of the cabinets it was sort of anti-kid. The bottom two thirds of the cabinets were solid, tapering in to put the objects right in the middle of the cases. This meant with the crush of elderly toe stepping visitors, we had to lift the kids up at every case three or four times (to maximise space, the cases had objects on three or 4 sides most of the time).

Any subject is open to interpretation and I think the curators went for a theme of abstraction- the Ice Age art on display, ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 years old, whilst showing great realism (particularly in anatomy), also marks the first time abstraction was used in the depiction of animal and human form- which is all very well but coupled with the intention to focus solely on the objects, meant that the walls were pretty much entirely bare. This was a real missed opportunity for pictures of cave paintings and visual items accessible to those of all ages (and heights) in what was in the end a lot of dead white space. There were also a few Henry Moore sculptures dotted around, presumably a rather heavy handed reinforcement of the abstraction idea, taking up a lot of space.

So rather than showing the objects in an earthy warm environment, the surround was quite cold and clinical.

The objects on display were very impressive but context was missing almost entirely. An opening panel discussed the ice age a bit but other than that, the art was left pretty much to talk for itself. Considering it spanned 20,000 years, some context in the form of the development of society over the period would have been useful, especially when it came to discussing it with the kids.

There were so many cameras snapping away, I didn’t realise that we weren’t supposed to take pictures (sorry BM), and I suppose the £25 book accompanying the paid exhibition will help fund the museum but it is a shame again that no kids resources were available. Today’s children are tomorrows museum patrons and this sort of art is completely suitable for the under 10’s, whether reproduction via painting or modelling clay, it is accessible to them in a way the exhibition sort to obfuscate.

No doubt we’ll get the FIMO modelling clay out at some point over half term and make some pendants or figures but it will be an effort to enthuse the kids into the art, which is a shame and a failing of the exhibition.

Overall I’m torn. It was certainly a missed opportunity and the number of objects was fairly small for a £10 entry fee. Having said that, it is no doubt a once in a lifetime opportunity to see those objects together and it has certainly left a lasting impression on me. Maybe one to not take the kids to however.