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Instead of a list of 1001 inventions, there was more slippery language throughout the exhibit. Consider the station boldly entitled “Creating the Chemical Industry.” It starts, “some sources say” that in the 8th Century Jabir ibn Hayyan used an Islamic alembic for distillation. How does distillation, a process that existed for 2,800 years before Jabir, have any bearing on “creating the chemical industry”? The exhibit gets around to that question, sort of.
“Scientists of this period laid important foundations of the modern chemical industry.” These include new ways of “classifying substances,” sort of like Aristotle classifying Earth, Air, Fire and Water a millennium before Jabir. But other Muslim scientists developed varnishes, synthetic chemicals, paints and pesticides, we are told. No details are provided for these very specific inventions.
Other “inventions” or skills used (and therein lies the riddle) described in the exhibit are windmills, water pumps, and crop rotation. One exhibit entitled “Home Life” claims that the influence of Muslim civilization on modern living is ubiquitous. “From gardens to games, fashions to fabrics, clocks to cameras, today’s home life is packed with influences from early Muslim civilization.”
The Soviets were notorious for claiming communists were the first in everything. At least with human rocket travel, they were right. But the exhibit steals the Soviets’ thunder:
The desire to blast off in a rocket has been alive for centuries. The famous traveler Evlia Celebi recorded that the first person to take a rocket powered flight into the sky was his brother, Lagari Hasan Celebi, in 17th Century Turkey. Celebi’s gunpowdered fueled rocket is said to have carried him high into the sky, where he spread out his wings, glided down and plunged into the Bosporus.
Sounds like the Space Shuttle. This story of Celebi is juxtaposed with a photo of an American Apollo moonwalker.
Notice, again, how the language hedges bets. A “famous” traveler reported his brother was the first to fly in a rocket. Since he is famous, it is likely to be true. The exhibit does not say a gunpowder rocket carried him high into the sky, but rather, the rocket is said to have carried him high into the sky.
The rocket story borders on dishonesty, as do so many other parts of 1001 Inventions. An exhibit purporting to present history, especially one sponsored by National Geographic, has an obligation to say what the history is. Instead the language of the exhibit equivocates, prevaricates, and in the worst moments, tricks the unwary.
Naturally, all of this raises the question of whether the slipperiness of the exhibit is deliberate or accidental. Knowing more about the sponsors may be illustrative. The Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives sponsors the exhibit, a group which proudly sponsors scholarships at MIT.
One thing is for sure, 1001 Inventions has high-power support.
1001 Inventions is supported by Prince Charles who said it “highlights how many of the most important scientific and technological discoveries and building blocks of modern civilization came out of Muslim society during the centuries after the fall of ancient Rome.” 500,000 attended the exhibit when it was in Los Angeles. Hillary Clinton praised the exhibit. Clearly, this is no backwater traveling show.
History is often determined in great battles. But ongoing battles about history can redefine it. The 1001 Inventions exhibit is diminished with a more understandable me-too-ism, a desperate search for cultural pride despite the technological dominance of the West after the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. But as Orwell noted, language and word choice are powerful weapons in battles about history. National Geographic has an obligation to clarify whether the words and claims in 1001 Inventions is history, legend, or a mix of both, before another half-million Americans march through their doors.
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