Cynthia Culbertson wants to make it clear what A Gift From the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse is not.
"It is not just a display of bridles and riding crops and things of that sort," says Culbertson, co-curator of the Arabian horse exhibit.
It opens this weekend at the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse and runs through the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Sept. 25 to Oct. 10.
"If you are into art, there are great works of art. If you're into ancient artifacts, we have representations of some of the most amazing civilizations ever. No matter your interest, you're going to find something in this exhibit that's completely fascinating to you."
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Co-curator Sandra L. Olsen says, "It's a very large exhibit in terms of the floor space and objects. We have 409 objects."
Those objects do include bridles — but these are bridles from the northern Iranian city of Hasanlu, one of the first civilizations to have domesticated horses, in the eighth century B.C.
"We can see how they really decorated their horses," says Olsen, curator of the Section of Anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. "The University of Pennsylvania worked very hard to restore these and then mount them so that you could see how they looked on the horses."
During a tour of the exhibit with Culbertson and Olsen, names from deep in history keep popping up: Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark is believed to have landed, and T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, the British army officer who played a key role in the early-20th-century Arab revolt against the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.
Early in the exhibit, viewers are treated to a terra-cotta depiction of a man on a horse that Lawrence once owned, and late in the show, they stand before the real-life Lawrence's robes, transporting the viewer back to the classic 1962 movie starring Peter O'Toole.
"Anybody who has ever seen the movie is going to be thrilled to stand in front of his robes, his headgear and his golden dagger," says Culbertson, an expert in Near Eastern languages and religion who breeds Arabian horses.
The exhibit seeks to do a lot with the Arabian horse, including showing its development as a breed and its impact on culture and its status as a symbol of elegance and pride. The exhibit includes images of Napoleon on an Arabian horse.
Throughout the exhibit, art plays a strong role in showing how the horse was depicted in the earliest drawings and carvings and in lush oil paintings. Much of that art also is on sword handles and vases.
Both curators were hard-pressed to name favorites in the exhibit, noting that it drew many unique objects from significant collections around the world.
"We want to get people in to see lots of treasures relating to the horse," Culbertson says.
Olsen adds, "And people will have to come back. It's the kind of thing where people learn so much from repeated visits."