Khan artistry: Why you should visit the NC Museum of Natural Sciences' exhibit on the Mongolian warlord

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So, tonight is First Friday and, as always, downtown Raleigh will have a bevy (that’s right, I said bevy!) of happenings that wandering folk can dip into. Over at the Museum of Natural Sciences, the museum’s monthly “Natural Horror Picture Show” will show the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which has Alex Winter and a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as high-school dunderheads picking up historical icons in a time-traveling phone booth for their history report.

One of those icons is Mongolian warrior/leader Genghis Khan, about whom the museum just happens to have an exhibit. It opened a couple weekends back, and we were invited to visit. The museum hopes you’ll show up tonight for the free movie, but also that you might wanna plunk down cash to see artifacts from Khan’s time.

If you still need convincing, here are five reasons you should check out the exhibit (with help from Albert Ervin, the museum’s special exhibits coordinator).

1. The exhibit has a lot of cool stuff.
The exhibit itself is a traveling museum devoted to both Khan’s legacy and Mongolian culture. You get weaponry both real (like a Mongol cavalry saber) and replicated (like a triple-action crossbow). But the exhibit also has about 200 artifacts belonging to Mongolia, ranging from clothing to bowls to musical instruments, all encased for your viewing pleasure. Ervin says many of these artifacts come from other empires and dynasties Khan conquered.

“His empire was twice the size of the Roman Empire, at its greatest extent,” he says. “So, he accumulated cultural artifacts from the people around him. [Khan] brought people from China and Europe sort of together along the Silk Road.”

2. It gives a well-rounded view of Khan.
Sure, Khan killed a lot of people (as Marc Maximov drolly pointed out in his 8 Days a Week writeup for the Indy), and this exhibit shows the armor, weaponry and tactics he used on the battlefield.

But Ervin says that’s not the whole story.

“I think this exhibit does a good job of showing Genghis Khan as the warrior that he was, because he was that,” says Ervin. “You don’t conquer most of the known world unless you’re a warrior—at least, in his day and age.

"The other side of it is that Genghis Khan was also a statesman. And he had a lot of really—I guess we would call them progressive ideas for his day. He created what would be very similar to a democracy. People rose in the ranks of the hierarchy of his military and of his government based on merit, not based on who they were related to.”

3. The place reeks of incense.
When you first walk in, you’ll find that the exhibit has a very exotic, alluring odor. That comes from a machine, located above a small recreation of the palace Khan's grandson Kublai called home, that blows the scent of incense all over the place. Ervin says that idea came from the exhibit organizers.

“I guess they just felt that it would put people in the mood of a Chinese palace,” he says. (It put me in the mood of an Erykah Badu concert when I took a whiff. But I’m sure your mood may be much different.)

4. This exhibit features a dead person’s bones!
Unfortunately, they're not Khan’s. No one knows where he’s buried. But someone did find the tomb of an unnamed Mongolian princess (they refer to her as “Princess Mummy,” but I like to call her “Karen”), and the bones of said princess are on display at the exhibit.

Says Ervin, “Based on the things that were found in the tomb with her, we can sort of extrapolate about how Genghis Khan may have lived or how he might have been buried.”

5. YOU’LL LEARN SOMETHING!!!!
You might even find it—dare I say—fascinating. “What I think is the cool part of this exhibit is that people will learn that Genghis Khan wasn’t just this ruthless barbarian,” says Ervin.

“He had that other side of him that made a lot of progressive changes in his empire and the people that he conquered. So, his empire wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did if all he was was just going out and killing people.”

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