Genghis Khan got a bad rap.
That's the message of the newest exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, running through Jan. 16. In the West, the term Genghis Khan conjures notions of a bloodthirsty warlord who marched his massive army of horsemen through Asia.
In most points east of Europe, however, Genghis Khan is revered as a great leader and innovative statesman who built an empire based on meritocracy, religious tolerance and personal freedom. At its height, the Khans' empire stretched from the Pacific shore of China to the Adriatic Sea.
"Genghis Khan: The Exhibition" tells the story of the man and the empire by way of more than 200 rare artifacts, assembled from private collections and the Mongolian Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Among the treasures: ancient swords, bows, jewelry, musical instruments and other works of art. The exhibit also features video installations, giant murals and models of Mongolian warriors and their dwellings.
Exhibit curator Albert Ervin, who also coordinates special exhibits for the museum, spoke about the great Khans, mummies and the olfactory aspects of a successful museum exhibit.
Q: A Genghis Khan exhibition seems an odd choice for a museum of natural sciences. Why did you want to bring this exhibition to Raleigh?
Well, this exhibit is pretty much based on archeology and the science of archeology. So that ties into our mission. Also, there's a large component of this exhibit (that) ties into the natural environment and the geography that Genghis Khan lived in. This really shaped the culture of the people.
Q: Genghis Khan has a very different image and reputation in the East and the West. What is the biggest misconception about Genghis Khan?
I think it's this idea that people have, that he was just this barbarian that swept over the plains of Asia and killed millions of people. What we try to show in the exhibit is the other side of that. He was a warlord, but he was also a statesman. He established this empire that lasted for several generations and covered more area than the Roman Empire.
Q: One of the aspects that really surprised me was that Genghis Khan promoted religious tolerance.
Yes, he was basically way ahead of his time with that. People could be Christians, they could be Buddhists, shamanistic, Muslim. He was, himself, shamanistic in religious practice, influenced by Buddhism. But he allowed people to be whatever religion they were. He made it rule of law that this was to be respected.
Q: Another thing that surprised me was how good it smells it that exhibit. Is that incense?
Those are little fans actually. We don't actually burn anything, so we don't have to be afraid of fire. They're these little contraptions that have a volatile oil and they blow that out into the exhibit.
Q: The exhibition also features the mummified remains of a Mongolian princess from the time of the Khans. Are there certain arrangements or precautions when displaying human remains like that?
That part of the exhibit is in the part of the museum that we have the most control over, in terms of temperature and humidity. And that was installed by the Mongolian curators, following whatever traditions or rules they would have. All those artifacts belong to the people of Mongolia. Those guys do a large part of the actual handling of the artifacts.
Q: What do you hope visitors will learn and take away from the exhibition?
Genghis Khan was really one of the first people to create a sort of global empire. Before his reign, people in China had never heard of people in Europe, and Europe had never heard of China. After him, there was a Silk Road and a pony express - there was communication and trade. His empire, being so huge and incorporating so many cultures, really did establish this idea of cultural tolerance and a global society.