National Geographic Explorer’s Hall in Washington D.C. has hosted some of the most prestigious exhibits in America. Previous exhibits have included the Chinese terracotta warriors, as well as the James Caird, the lifeboat Sir Ernest Shackleton miraculously sailed from Antarctica to South Georgia Island in 1916. Currently it is hosting a curious exhibit through February 2013 entitled “1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization.” This high tech, slickly produced exhibit explicitly seeks to debunk the “myth” that the dark ages were dark.
The exhibit purports to provide examples of innovations from Muslim civilization, and some of the claims may come as a surprise to those familiar with the Wright Brothers or Yuri Gagarin.
I recently visited “1001 Inventions” which was housed on the same floor as a fantastic Titanic exhibit. I purchased entry to the museum at a ticket booth staffed by Rebecca Head, a National Geographic employee. Perhaps assuming I was heading to see the Titanic exhibit, Head pushed attendance at 1001 Inventions - “There is a really great exhibit on Muslim inventions you should see.”
The exhibit begins with star power – a short movie starring Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley. Kingsley plays a librarian who faces a trio of young uniformed (presumably British) students seeking information about “the dark ages.”
Kingsley’s character bristles at the children’s characterization, critical of those “filling your head with such nonsense and ripping down the good of former civilizations.”
But “everyone knows the Greeks and Romans invented everything!” one child replies.
Kingsley’s librarian doesn’t equivocate – “some of the most important discoveries” were made by “Muslim civilizations.”
Harry Potter-style magic takes over, and Kingsley is transformed with beautiful flourish from an English librarian into the exotic turban wearing historical figure of Al-Jazari. The children are enthralled, both on the screen, and in the audience.
Al-Jazari informs the three children that a grand civilization “that stretched from Spain to China” was responsible “for some of the most important discoveries” in the world. These include, according to Kingsley’s transformed Al-Jazari, devices such as the camera.
And herein lies the most fascinating characteristic of the entire exhibit – the slipperiness of its language. Indeed, language throughout the exhibit, as we shall see, becomes a way to trick attendees. Cleverly chosen words nudge readers toward unsupported conclusions. Myth mingles with science. Rumor becomes history.
Consider the "invention” of the camera. Al-Jazari, portrayed masterfully and magically on screen by Kingsley, says “he” was responsible for explaining “how our eyes work” and developed camera obscura. Even if it is historically accurate that Al-Jazari pioneered camera obscura, the slithery language of the screenplay generates an inference that Al-Jazari is somehow legitimately involved in the chain of inventions culminating in my Nikon 35mm.
I was reminded of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language when he wrote: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Kingsley’s Al-Jazari fulfills Orwell’s warning in the film when he introduces another Muslim inventor, Abbas Ibn Firnas, who “dared to dream man could fly 1000 years before the Wright Brothers.”
Outside the theater, Firnas is featured in a flight exhibit. Firnas is “said to be the first person who tried to fly. His first attempt which has passed into legend took place when he leapt from the minaret of the Great Mosque in Cordoba. Equipped with a glider with wooden struts, he managed to fly and landed more or less unharmed. [His] next flight was more ambitious. From the top of a nearby hill, he launched himself and his flying machine, apparently gliding for some distance before falling, a problem blamed on the lack of a tail.”
Notice all of the tricks of language. He was the first “who tried to fly,” and “passed into legend,” “more or less unharmed,” the “flying machine,” (implying moving parts), and “apparently gliding for some distance.” Naturally he also diagnosed that that cause of his failure was the want of a tail. The exhibit neglects to inform us about whether he applied this fix to his “machine.”
The exhibit also features an interactive game for children where they can help Firnas fly by flapping their arms.
This all might seem harmless, but consider the argument I had with my 8-year-old after leaving the exhibit. She was convinced that the Wright Brothers were not the first to fly, and instead it was Firnas launched from the mosque at Cordoba a millennium ago. This would not be the only instance when thought corrupted the language of the exhibit, which in turn corrupted thought, at least among the more impressionable.
The short introductory film with Kingsley playing Al-Jazari goes on to tell the three on-screen students (and the many children in the theatre) that the 1001 inventions include medical devices, ideas or unspecified things which somehow led to the compass and GPS satellite navigation and the very Industrial Revolution itself.
Al-Jazari hands the children a book called “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World” and urges them plainly to “spread the word.”
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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