Saturday, June 23, 2012

Genghis Khan Exhibit at the Field Museum

Jim and I took off from work yesterday to spend the day together, and we decided to go into the city to see the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Field Museum. It was a beautiful day for the drive and to walk around by the lake.

I didn't know a whole lot about Genghis Khan or his empire prior to going to the exhibit.  The fact that the Mongol Empire was twice as big as the Roman Empire was news to me! Most of my information about the Mongols comes from Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy, where they are portrayed as fierce warriors and a dangerous threat to Europe (which they most certainly were). I also saw the Sergei Bodrov movie Mongol a few years back, which was the first film in a proposed trilogy about the life of Genghis Khan. Not sure how historically accurate that movie is, but it certainly provided a different view of Khan than the ruthless warlord I normally think of when I hear his name.

Anyway, the exhibit was really interesting. There was a reasonable historical flow through his youth, his conquests, his death, what happened when the empire was split between his four sons, and finally some information on modern Mongolia. Short videos throughout provided useful background. While I admit that I was most intrigued by the saddles, weapons, and armor, I liked seeing the example of a yurt they had on display (see picture below). It was also illuminating to hear about the lack of cohesion in Mongolian culture before Khan came along. To bring all these tribes together and then organize them into a working military force was clearly a monumental feat of politics, leadership, and personal charisma.

I would suggest that no one go into this exhibition expecting a trove of artifacts from the period of Khan's life. There is a moderate number of objects and they are worth seeing, however, as Jim pointed out, this was clearly a nomadic society.  It's unlikely they saw much use in creating items to endure the way a more settled culture would. Travelling light was key. In fact, another thing I learned from this exhibit was that the Mongols had no written language until Khan introduced it. His influence on this civilization and the direction it took clearly cannot be overstated, and it's hard to think of another leader who did so much to single-handedly shape his civilization.

I felt like I learned a good deal from the exhibit and not just about the way the Mongols fought (though I did love the descriptions of the nomadic life, their expertise in archery while standing in saddle on a moving horse, and that they'd drink horse blood if food was tight). This exhibit is incapable of making you an expert on Mongolian culture and its people, but it does provide a broad overview and will pique your imagination and curiosity. I was disappointed that the gift shop at the exit didn't have any serious-looking, comprehensive volumes on Mongolian history. There were recipe books, travel guides, and cutesy books for kids, but nothing that looked as though it would appeal to an adult interested in learning more about the man and/or his culture.

Unfortunately, beyond the exhibit, the Field Museum was a disappointment. I hadn't been there since I was a kid and I found it to be a collection of stuff clumped together in thematically unified but jumbled piles. The Egyptian section was really underwhelming in both the chronologically disorganized manner of display and that everything is so dimly lit you can barely see the artifacts. The Oriental Institute - also in Chicago - is a much better museum for an intelligent trip into the past. Maybe Jim and I will go there later this summer!

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