Sunday, August 24, 2014

Caves of Lesaux

A few years ago we saw the documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" while it was playing in Philadelphia. Werner Hezog was given exclusive rights to film inside the cave located in Chauvet in Southern France. Discovered in 1994, the cave drawings date back 20,000 years. Learning from what happened to the cave drawings found in Lescaux, France in 1940, the French government immediately closed access to the Chauvet caves, with the exception of archaeologists and a few scientists.

The movie, which came out in 2010, was made under their stringent rules -- only so many people allowed for certain number of minutes a day using certain types of lights and equipment, etc. It is a quite impressive movie.

So why do I bring all of this up now? While in Montreal we visited the Montreal Science Museum just to see their special exhibit on the Caves of Lesaux (running through September 14, 2014).

Some kids and their dog discovered the cave drawings in 1940. In 1948 the site was opened to the public. By 1955 they had over 1,200 visitors a day -- each of whom paid a nominal fee to enter the cave. Damage due to the visitors breathing (as opposed to malicious activity) was visibly by then, but it took until 1963 for the government to shut down access to the caves. More recently they have changed the air conditioning system which has led to a serious mold issue. Yes, it was fine for 20,000 years until a bunch of people thinking they know better messed with it.

Scientists worked hard and restored the cave drawings. Whew! Today people can visit a replica of the cave drawings located nearby, but only those working on the restoration project are allowed inside the cave.

More recently they have been working on creating 3D models of the cave drawings. These are really cool! The exhibit spends much time trying to make it kid friendly -- "how were the Cro-Magnuns like us?" questions appear throughout the exhibit. They have places where you can listen to what people who have seen the caves in person think about them -- there were about 10 of these stations, each one lasting 2-3 minutes. I felt like they could have handled this section differently. There were also a couple of movies (alternating in English and in French) explaining more about the cave drawings -- why were they made, how were they made, etc.

The most awesome part for me, though, was seeing the 3D representations of the cave drawings. You felt like you were walking in the cave, but with more space, better lighting, better air quality, and without having to travel to France. We saw only a snippet of the caves. We did see the section they deemed to be the first animation -- is that one deer jumping over the river or five? 

I wish they would have done something about the noise levels coming from upstairs in this section. The caves feel so solemn. Ancient flute music should be playing and a sense of awe should be permeating. Instead, there is a hole cut out in the ceiling for the unicycle on a high wire (similar to the one Ashley did at COSI), which wasn't even running that day. The noise from the upstairs exhibit floated into the caves of Lescaux transporting us to the modern day. 

My favorite comment in the exhibit was as follows: 

Meanwhile. in Quebec...
While Cro-Magnons were busy painting at Lescaux, Quebec was still buried under a kilometer of ice. The glaciers had to recede before the first humans could begin wandering on Quebec soil about 11,000 years ago. Not long after, the first paintings and etchings began appearing here as well.

If the exhibit makes the rounds closer to you, I hope you can see it.

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