extended until 23.01.2022

The history of ivory is simultaneously the history of humanity.

As far back as 40,000 years ago, humans were creating objects from mammoth tusks. Ivory’s highly-prized status runs through many cultures, across different continents, and over millennia right up to the present day. Both the tusk itself, and the objects fashioned from it, have consistently been objects of human desire, and hence have served as gift, commodity, and plunder. But since extraction of this precious material necessitates the death elephants, this human desire has turned the bearer of the material into an endangered species.

This exhibition presents the intriguing interconnection between elephant, human and ivory. In a world- and epoch-spanning narrative, it progresses from small to large: from an ivory fragment to the image of the tusk right up to the entire animal, linking the cultural significance of ivory with its natural history, as well as the social and ecological consequences of its use. Over 200 exhibits have been brought together from world-renowned museums such as the British Museum in London, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Germanischen Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.

Terrible Beauty presents the interrelationship of elephant, human and ivory using novel formats and a wide range of perspectives: from processing the raw material to the colonial connotations of the image of the tusk, from the use of ivory in medicine and its connection with ideals of beauty to its role as a symbol of sophistication, from the elephant as symbol of power, hunter’s prey and protected animal species, from its perception as an important link in the cycle of nature and as a bearer of meaning in religion, myth and artistic reflection.

A key element of the exhibition is our Voices of Ivory installation, which gives a platform to a range of experts, nature conservationists, customs officials and ivory collectors. Their statements, some of which are controversial, create a forum of varying attitudes and diverse perspectives, placing the topic in ethical, global and political contexts.

How can we present a biological raw material in a museum at all, when its extraction was and is associated with sometimes drastic consequences for both animals and humans? A question this exhibition does not shy away from. With an original presentational style, it is helping to develop a new type of museum that is anything but an ‘ivory tower’, but rather a venue for conversation and networking. This is not just an exhibition – it is also a model for the possibilities achievable when creating exhibitions.

An exhibition by the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss in cooperation with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Museum für Naturkunde, curated by Grit Keller, Alberto Saviello and Daniel Tyradellis, with the assistance of Anika Winge, from an idea by Raffael Gadebusch. In collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya.

Facilitated by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.


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The superb special exhibition on ivory Terrible Beauty … is a corker, delicately balancing the aesthetic appeal of objects against the cruelty of their origins.


It is exactly the kind of show the Humboldt Forum should be putting on—melding the natural world and arts and culture to reflect the interests of the polymath brothers who gave the new museum complex its name.


The exhibition pays tribute to the craftsmen who made beautiful works of art with ivory and to the park rangers who protect the elephants from ivory hunters.

De Standaard

Among the initial special exhibitions is one that proves that the Humboldt Forum is unafraid of politically charged issues. Terrible Beauty deals with the contradictory feelings aroused by objects made of ivory.


The first show dedicated to the cultural history of ivory makes you realise that it is not only possible for museums to engage with the global consequences of colonialism, but that it is also intellectually profitable.

Berliner Morgenpost

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