Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 opened this week and features over 300 objects in a huge array of media—painting, sculpture, furniture, glass, silver, musical instruments, bookbinding—the list goes on. And while this is a first-of-its-kind exhibition, most of what you'll see in the show does hold the similarity of having been created by human hands (predictable, I know).
One object stands out in this regard, though. Hanging above visitors as they enter the exhibition are the skull and antlers of Megaloceros giganteus, more commonly called the Giant Irish Elk. Dating from somewhere around the late-Pleistocene/early-Holocene (give or take a few years), skeletons of the Irish Elk were often discovered, fully-preserved, in Irish bogs by workers harvesting peat.
The antlers welcome guests to our exhibition, just as they would have welcomed guests into an eighteenth-century Irish country house. This particular specimen denotes an important theme of cultural exchange fundamental to the exhibition. Given to the American College of Surgeons in Chicago by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland over 100 years ago, the antlers represent the widespread diaspora and exchange of Irish art since the eighteenth century. In fact, despite the exhibition's size and depth, it is drawn entirely from North American collections.
So yes, in the true spirit of an art museum, we are celebrating an 11,000-year-old elk skull not as a scientific specimen but as a symbol of the healthy exchange of art and ideas. Come get a dose of that at Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, open through June 7.