- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History paints Genghis Khan as both a fearsome warrior and an early proponent of democratic principles.
"Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan" originated at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology with the support of the National Museum of Mongolian History in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It invites visitors to experience 20th-century Mongolian life through artifacts and life-size displays that reveal the 13th-century Mongol conqueror's complex legacy.
The exhibit is "rather unusual, because it's a show of political anthropology. It's not what we normally show here," says William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the natural history museum. "It depends very much on reading the text and looking closely at the exhibits."
Paula Sabloff, senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's museum and the exhibition's curator, says she wanted to share insights into the lives of Mongolians. The exhibit presents her 1998-99 research.
"We have a lot in common with them," Miss Sabloff says. Both cultures' histories feature the struggle of the "little guy freeing himself from the big guy and getting help from others."
"Their ideal man is the same as our ideal man they worship the rugged individual as do we," she says. "They also have a sense of humor, just like Americans they bond through laughing."
Most Americans view Genghis Khan as a fierce warlord and emperor, an understandable assessment. At its height, his empire was the largest the world has ever seen, stretching from China to the Caspian Sea and encompassing East Asia, the Central Asia plateau, most of the Middle East and Russian principalities all the way to Moscow.
Mongolians, however, remember and appreciate the democratic ideals he introduced to his empire, Miss Sabloff says.
"In 1206, nine years before the signing of the Magna Carta in England, Genghis Khan brought Mongolians the gifts of independence, nationhood and the basic principles from which they would one day build a modern democratic state," she says.
"Today, Mongolians identify Genghis Khan with their contemporary democratic principles," says Miss Sabloff, "even though he didn't have a democratic regime."
Finally, the exhibit reflects the government's influence on the life of its citizens.
"The underlying message [of the exhibit]," she says, "is that the government unequivocally affects daily life."
"Modern Mongolia" depicts the three governmental shifts during the 20th century, beginning with Mongolia's declaration of independence from Chinese rule in 1921. However, with military and political help from the Bolsheviks, Mongolia soon became the world's second communist country, after Russia. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Mongolians began to desire their own freedom from communism; strikes and demonstrations led to a new democratic constitution, ratified in 1992.
Each of the three time segments is represented by a life-size "ger," the rounded, traditional home of Mongolian nomads. Many of the exhibit's 192 costumes and artifacts are showcased in the gers. Each reflects the shifting styles, fashions and decorations brought on by the changing governments. Four films, commissioned for the exhibit, provide valuable historic background and insight into modern-day Mongolian life.
The show includes a hands-on section where visitors may try on authentic Mongolian attire. The gift shop features books on Mongolia and Mongolian life and Mongolian articles of clothing, including hats, boots, jackets, jewelry and rich silk gowns.
Other program highlights include a demonstration of Mongolian lively arts on Thursday, "The Cowboy in Mongolia" film on Aug. 30 and a lecture by Miss Sabloff titled "In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan: Mongolia Today," to be shown Sept. 13.
The opening of "Modern Mongolia" was timed to coincide with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, "The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust," held outdoors on the Mall through tomorrow.

WHAT: "Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan"
WHERE: National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days, through Sept. 2, then 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. The exhibit runs through Oct. 25.
PHONE: 202/357-2700

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