National Geographic Museum Hosts Exhibit Covering Golden Age of Muslim Civilization

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It appears that the Dark Ages are not as dark as the name implies.

On Friday, August 3, the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. welcomed an exciting, world-renowned exhibit called, “1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization.” The exhibit showcases often overlooked inventions that had been created during a period in which it is commonly believed that almost nothing was conceived at all. These innovations added greatly to modern technology in fields such as energy efficiency and timekeeping.

Notable pieces of the exhibition include an elephant clock, created 800 years ago, and automated by a water-powered timekeeper called a ghatika. This clock is a centerpiece of Muslim civilization, with an Egyptian phoenix, Greek hydraulic technology, Chinese dragons, an Indian elephant and mechanical figurines in Arabian dress. Another important piece is the energy-efficient courtyard house, designed more than 4,500 years ago.

“There is a preconceived idea that [the Dark Ages] was a period of time with barbarism and no progress going on,” said Richard McWalters, director of museum operations at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. “But there was, if you go a little south and a little east in the Muslim world, there was an age of enlightenment going on there which wasn’t dark at all. It was bright. It doesn’t get a lot of play in history books.”

This is proved by the everyday objects used in modern times: fabrics, perfume, and even the game of chess. These objects were created in what is considered a barbaric time in human history.

To showcase these objects, National Geographic is hosting a number of additional educational events, apart from the exhibition itself, during the exhibit’s stay at the museum.

“We’ve done this before on other topics, it has been very successful: we’re having a 1001 Inventions Family Festival,” explained McWalters. “On that particular day, there will be free admission to the museum. It’ll be an opportunity to experience the art and culture of Muslim civilization. Activities, demonstrations, workshops and musical performances, and an outdoor bazaar.” The Family Festival will take place on Sept. 8, 2012.

“We’re also going to be having a couple of authors here, during the time, talking about their books,” McWalters continued. Salim al-Hassani, editor of the companion book (1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization) of the exhibition, will be making an appearance there, as well as Bsifu, a chef who has written a book on Arab cuisine. It is planned that Bsifu will give tastings from her favorite recipes.

There will also ticketed events like a poetry exhibit and an Arabian Sights Film Festival in October.

When asked about the audience orientation for these events, McWalters responded, “The poetry readings might be a little more adult-oriented. Generally speaking we try to do most of our programming for people of all ages.”

The traveling exhibit has been a resounding success, attracting millions of visitors when it made its rounds in London, New York, Istanbul and Abu Dhabi. Before it was closed in mid-March 2012, it had drawn more than 500,000 spectators to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Another tribute to its accomplishment: it was named the  Best Touring Exhibition of the Year at the Museums and Heritage Excellence Awards in the U.K.

“We would find our success in a variety of ways, certainly the number of visitors to the doors is one of them,” said McWalters of the exhibition’s prospects at the National Geographic. “Also, we judge our success by how we see visitors interact with the exhibition. We just observe visitors really enjoying the exhibit; you see families truly talking about it and connecting things, and you can really see the learning happening. That is a very important aspect as well.”

“It’s important for people to understand how well we are connected worldwide,” replied McWalters when asked of the importance of the purpose of the exhibition. “We are connected past geological borders and through time as well. We are basically standing on the foundation of many innovations created many, many years ago. I think it’s important for people to understand that a small contribution that they can make today can be a bigger contribution in the future.”

Aisha Khatib, Urooj Fatima, and Anhar Karim contributed to this article.