Israel Museum Turns a 'Brief History of Humankind' Into Exhibit

The Israel Museum celebrates its jubilee by bringing Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling book to life with an artistic and archaeological exhibit.

Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” has been a fixture on the Israeli nonfiction best-seller list since it was published in 2011. The book that finally knocked it off the number one spot, “The History of Tomorrow,” came out two months ago – and that’s by Harari, too.

So it’s no surprise that The Israel Museum thought many would see an exhibition based on Harari’s first book. As part of its jubilee celebrations, the museum has created the year’s central exhibit around “Brief History.” The book summarizes the entire history of Homo sapiens since man started talking some 70,000 years ago.

The curator, Tania Coen-Uzzielli, selected significant chapters from the book and used the museum’s collections to prepare the exhibit, which includes archaeological artifacts alongside modern art, in tribute to the museum’s variety and breadth.

“As part of the celebrations, we wanted to try to understand the significance of the museum, its place and its collections, as an organization and institution. We have the first remains of Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens, as well as Einstein’s handwritten theory of relativity,” she explains.

“There are not many museums in the world that can connect the two,” adds Coen-Uzzielli, who was born in Italy and studied archaeology and art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The exhibit includes a limited number of 14 archaeological artifacts. “Like Noah Harari constantly sends us back and forth in his book to understand the significance of a historical transition on our modern life, the archaeological past corresponds with modern art,” she says.

'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind' writer Yuval Noah Harari. (Photo by Richard Stanton)

The first two archaeological exhibits are a collection of African flint tools, which Homo erectus chiseled one-and-a-half million years ago, and the first remains of a campfire, from 800,000 years ago. In the same room, one can see an installation by Polish contemporary artist Miroslaw Balka, including a couple of video screens portraying two gas-cooking flames, lying on a salt surface.

“The common thread of the entire exhibition is the tension between Homo sapiens, modern man and nature,” says Coen-Uzzielli. “Balka’s work relates to a poem by German-Jewish poet Paul Celan, in which the blue eyes of a murderous man in Nazi Germany appear. The eyes here are the gas flames. We control nature, but this fire is also destructive. It can destroy nature and us.”

Later, one sees skulls of the extinct Neanderthal man alongside those of Homo sapiens, who survived, next to Lior Waterman’s video work “Kabara,” which describes a Neanderthal man in our time who suffers harassment and attacks by those who have a hard time accepting him.

“Here I wanted to talk about the tension between survival and destruction,” says Coen-Uzzielli. “The exhibit does not want to take an academic approach. It wants to raise existential questions that have repercussions through today.”

Contemporary angle

The rest of the exhibit deals with concepts of family, religion and myths, the Agricultural Revolution, urban settlement, money and law, the Industrial Revolution, globalization and the future. Each time, the archaeological display provides the material reality, while the artists’ works try to deal with the phenomenon and its significance, and to give it a contemporary angle. Other items include a 70,000-year-old hyoid bone discovered in Kebara Cave, northern Israel; a 9,000-year-old Neolithic family grave; the first coin from the sixth century B.C.E.; and a map dating from the period of the discovery of America. Among the artistic works are videos by Doron Solomons and Douglas Gordon, as well as installations by Efrat Natan, Liat Segel, Charles Ray, Mark Dion and Absalon.

The exhibition ends with a look toward the future, with Yinka Shonibare’s installation of a family of astronauts dressed in outfits made of African cloth, and a film that draws inspiration from National Geographic nature films that follow animals. However, in this case the animals are synthetic biological creations – machine parts turned into animals.

Coen-Uzzielli says the exhibit also relates to the year of the museum’s founding. “We took 1965 and froze it, in an exhibit that goes back in time and asks within which context The Israel Museum was born,” she relates. “And the exhibit of ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ looks at the concept of time from early culture through the future. There are two totally different exhibits here: one dealing with the Israeli art and design of that year; the other connecting archaeology and art, with the two comprising the museum’s DNA.”

Noah Harari’s theory in his book is that man is the most deadly species on the planet, and his hypothesis that history as we know it is coming to an end. These subjects are underrepresented in the exhibit, perhaps in a bid not to deter potential visitors. But Noah Harari himself doesn’t believe the exhibit represses his pessimistic conclusions.

“My impression is that they did not sweep all the bad things under the rug,” he says. “There is a big, shocking exhibit there that relates to the extinction of animals. It relates to the problem of the capitalist and consumer system. It’s an exhibition that takes quite a lot of time to absorb every aspect of it. At first glance, it definitely portrays the less pleasant sides of humankind, too.”

According to the writer, the basic idea of the exhibition meshes with the broad project he is trying to promote: making contemporary scientific knowledge accessible to the greater public.

“There are some people to whom a book speaks more loudly, while visual exhibits have much more power with another part of the public,” he continues. “The exhibition is a type of dialogue with my project. It is interesting to see how other people with an understanding in other areas of art take ideas from the book and tell another story from it. For me, it highlights the enormous importance of art in history The perception of the past among most people is not formed by history books but rather different art forms. It’s something the exhibition really stresses. And it connects strongly to the book’s central ideas. Perhaps the book talks about how the most important things in history – money, gods, law, etc. – exist only in our collective imagination. These stories we invented have no scientific, biological existence. And here art has a tremendous task, because for most people it is what shapes these myths.”

“A Brief History of Humankind” runs at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, until December 26.