Getting from Here to There

Five artworks show us different ways to get around.

Idea One: Traveling Along the Silk Road

The Silk Road began in China, with routes spreading across Asia into Europe.


Would you like to ride a camel? You would probably say no if you knew the camel’s reputation. Camels are bad-tempered, stubborn, and smelly. They don’t particularly like to be ridden. And when annoyed, they may spit or kick.

In ancient China, however, camels were the ideal form of transportation along the trade routes known as the Silk Road. The routes included several spans of desert that were too difficult to cross with carts and too dry and barren to sustain horses.

Why are camels such good desert travelers? Camels can go for several days with little or no food or water. They can even lose as much as a quarter of their weight without damaging their bodies. And their humps are full of fat that gives them energy when food isn’t available. So, camels can easily survive in the desert.

Camels are also extremely strong. They can carry very heavy loads, up to 900 pounds. This made them invaluable to the traders of the Silk Road. In large caravans, 100 to 1000 camels were used as pack animals to transport a variety of trade items. Silk, textiles, gold, lacquer, jade, furs, ceramics, bronzes, books, spices, and medicines were just some of luxury goods that were carried on camels backs. Most camel herders came not from China but from Mongolia, Tibet, and central Asia. The herder here rides a two-humped, bactrian camel. The camel with a single hump is a dromedary.

The ceramic camels you see here were once placed in a tomb. In China during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906), camel figures became popular grave objects, symbolizing the wealth acquired through trade. The great size of these camels—they are much bigger than typical tomb figures—shows that they came from an important burial.

Idea Two: Building Bridges

The Uji River flows from Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, to the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.

Can you walk on water? No, of course not! But bridges are one way you can get across a river or stream.

The bridge painted on this Japanese screen spans the Uji River, which flows between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka. Originally built in A.D. 646, it is the third oldest bridge in Japan. The beauty of the bridge and its surrounding landscape made it one of the most famous scenic spots (meisho) of ancient Japan. As the site of many battles, Uji Bridge has great historical significance.

Poets and artists celebrated the bridge in their writings and paintings. At the beginning of the ninth century, a screen picturing Uji Bridge was installed in the imperial palace. This was very important because, at that time, most paintings in Japan featured Chinese subjects. Uji Bridge also served as the setting for the last chapters of a famous eleventh-century novel, _The Tale of Genji_, by lady Murasaki Shikibu.

By the late sixteenth century, Uji Bridge had become the classic subject for Japanese screens. Scenes of the bridge with willow trees often show the spring and summer seasons. Viewing all twelve panels of this screen (from right to left), you can see that the tree at the far right has smaller, more delicate leaves, whereas that on the left has longer and fuller leaves.

What do you notice most of all about this screen? It’s pretty hard to miss the gleaming gold. Nearly everything, bridge, riverbanks, trees, waterwheel, is covered in gold. Some clouds are made from tiny squares of gold leaf, and some are solid gold leaf. Originally the water was painted with silver, which has tarnished over time. The use of gold and silver was not only extremely lavish, but also quite functional. Placed in large, dimly lit rooms, such golden screens reflected both sunlight and candlelight, helping to brighten the darkest interior. Most camel herders came not from China but from Mongolia, Tibet, and central Asia. The herder here rides a two-humped, bactrian camel. The camel with a single hump is a dromedary.

When the two screens are placed side by side, you can see the progression from spring to summer scene.

Japan, Uji Bridge, Momoyama period, ink, colors, and gold on pape

Idea Three: Sailing Into the Afterlife

Model Boat, 2133-1786 B.C.,
polychromed wood

The Nile River flows the entire length of Egypt.

How do you get from one life to the next? For the ancient Egyptians, the answer was a model boat like this one.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the spirit, or ka, lived on after death. Elaborate tombs were made for the dead, to ensure that they would have an enjoyable afterlife. Food, clothing, furniture, tools, and other necessities were placed inside the tomb. When real objects weren’t available, models or paintings substituted for them.

Model boats, manned by servant oarsmen, were placed in tombs to magically transport the deceased’s spirit. The first journey was to the city of Abydos, where the spirit could enter the passage between the land of the living and the land of the dead. There, Osiris (god of the underworld) and nine other judges decided whether the spirit could join them in the afterlife. Upon entering the afterlife, the spirit could travel freely up and down the Nile River in the model boat. Often, two boats were placed in a tomb, one with a mast (for sailing south, against the current) and one with only oarsmen (for rowing north, with the current). Since this boat has a mast, it must have sailed south.

The model is similar to the real boats that were used on the Nile. Its hull (framework) is deeply curved so that the bow (front) and stern (back) rise high above the waterline. Boats like this were easy to beach and didn’t need a deep harbor. Riverboats had a vital role in Egyptian commerce. They transported people and goods and were also used for fishing and for netting wild fowl.

Egyptian mummy cases and coffins were covered with images and symbols to help the ka in its passage to the afterworld. Symbolic pictures of Osiris, god of the underworld, appear in several places on Lady Teshat’s mummy case.

The figures of the oarsmen are fairly realistic and show how ancient Egyptian men dressed. All these men wear black helmet-shaped wigs. You can still see the black eyeliner that men commonly wore.

Idea Four: Precious Cargo

Dakhota, Cradle Cover,
19th century, c.1880,
animal hide, quills,
beads, ribbon, sequins, cloth


Can you guess what precious cargo was nestled safely inside this cover? This cradle cover gave protection and comfort to a baby. Combined with a board, it was a convenient way for a Native American mother to carry her child. She could wear the board on her back, tie it onto a horse, or fasten it to a travois.

A Dakhota woman made this cover over a century ago. The Dakhota live on lands that are part of both the Great Plains and the Great Lakes/Woodlands regions of the United States. Traditionally, Plains Indians were nomads who depended on buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter. Tribes of the Great Lakes/Woodlands region hunted forest animals, fished, and gathered wild foods. Dakhota culture and traditions include aspects of life in both regions.

How does this cradle cover show both Plains and Woodlands traditions? Take a close look and identify the various decorations. The flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, and birds are designs favored by the tribes of the Great Lakes/Woodlands region. The colors (especially red), the beaded border, and the geometric pattern on the back of the board are typical of Plains Indian art.

Who made this cover? We don’t know. But the technique, coloring, and intricate quillwork show that she was a master at her craft. With its fine detailing, the cover would have taken over a year to complete. Who did she make it for? For her own child, or the child of someone she knew very well.

Cradleboards are not commonly used today. However, they are still occasionally made for symbolic purposes as a gift for a family’s first child or to recall traditions of the past. Today many parents use modern versions of the cradleboard, such as baby slings or backpacks, to transport their children.

Idea Five: Faster Than a Bullet

Hans Ledwinka,
Tatra T-87 Four-Door Sedan,
1948 (designed 1936),
all-metal construction

The Cyclops fog light was very useful for early-morning misty drives in the mountains of Germany and Austria.

Imagine you could run your hand over this car. How would it feel? As you moved your hand, would you hit many sharp angles and jagged edges, or would you feel smooth bends and sleek curves? Why do you think a car would have this shape?

This car, the Czechoslovakian Tatra T87, was designed for speed and efficiency. In the early 1930s, engineers and designers worked on streamlining airplanes, automobiles, and trains, creating a shape that would reduce the amount of drag on the moving vehicle.

What makes the Tatra T87 so aerodynamic? Its design, developed by the Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, was based on carefully tested scientific and engineering principles. The Tatra’s unique form, its smooth lines, rounded edges, short front end, and long, tapered rear, let it slip through the air more easily than a boxy, flat-fronted car.

Of course, to interest car buyers, the Tatra also had to be stylish. Its front Cyclops fog light, sliding sunroof, leather seats, three-part windshield, delicate rear lights, built-in fenders, and rear-mounted V-8 engine are just some of the features that appealed to the public.

Visually, the most striking part of the Tatra T87 is the big fin at the rear. Not only does it add dramatic flair, it also serves a purpose. Without it, a crosswind would make the tapered body waver at high speeds.

The leather seats make the ride more comfortable, and the side windshields help the driver see.

The Tatra’s V-8, 75-horsepower engine is at the rear. With this engine, the Tatra could travel at 100 miles per hour.


Related Activities

Design Your Own Cover

The designs and symbols on the cradle cover reflect traditional Dakota culture. Draw a cradle cover and decorate it with patterns and symbols that reflect your own community.

Beloved Bridges

The Uji Bridge is one of the most beloved bridges in Japan. What bridges are treasured in the United States, and other countries? What makes them special? Why are bridges so important? What different features can a bridge have? Research bridges using the Internet and your local library. Then design your ideal bridge.

At the Museum

Go on a Getting from Here to There treasure hunt at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Walk through the galleries and see how many different modes of transportation you can identify.

The Silk Road Diary

Imagine that you are a trader on the Silk Road. What would your journey be like? What people, places, and things might you encounter on the route? Are your travels dangerous? How do you brave the elements in the mountains and the desert? Write a diary entry from the perspective of a trader.

Flying High

Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic sparked interest in aerodynamic design. Research Lindbergh’s flight and his airplane The Spirit of St. Louis. How did Lindbergh prepare for his flight? What were some features of the plane’s design? How did the flight influence how planes, trains, and cars were designed?

Compare and Contrast

Pick two modes of transportation. How are they alike? How are they different? Are there benefits to one, but not the other (speed, ease, safety, pollution)? Which do you prefer? Write an essay comparing the two forms of transportation.