Art Art

Body Art: Marks of Identity

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.320.7226.64 (Published 01 January 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:64
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne, freelance journalist
  1. New York

    American Museum of Natural History, New York, until 29 May 2000

    (see www.amnh.org/exhibitions/bodyart and www.discovery.com/exp/humancanvas/humancanvas.html)

    Every time you shave, put on make up, or squeeze into tight jeans in an attempt to alter your appearance you are unwittingly following in the footsteps of your ancestors, who devised equally ingenious ways of doing the same thing. Now a history of our ancestors' methods of painting and piercing their bodies over the past 30 000 years is on display in a wondrous, imaginative, and sometimes frightening exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. “There is no known culture in which people don't do this, whether permanently or temporarily,” said Ellen V Futter, president of the museum.

    Why do people alter their bodies, sometimes painfully and permanently? Enid Schildkrout, curator of the show and chair of the museum's division of anthropology, thinks there are many reasons: “To be human. For beauty, as a sign of change or rebellion or conformity, to show status, to mark a moment, to be able to wear a certain ornament, to identify with spirits or ancestors or deities, to show group membership, to show gender distinctions.”

    Organised in six major …

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