Brush your ponies and string your bows. The Mongol hordes are coming to town.
Come late January 2019, the Gulf Coast Exploreum (65 Government St.) will host its first “blockbuster” exhibit in a decade when “Genghis Khan: The Great Civilizer” opens. It’s set to both challenge and meet varied expectations.
The most obvious of those is its namesake’s reputation. Murderous barbarity is a common image of the Mongol founder, whose 13th century empire was larger than those of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. Khan ruled over 11 million square miles, from the Pacific Ocean to Europe’s Caspian Sea.
However, the exhibit credits the Great Khan with bringing such things as pants, cannons, paper money, a pony express, skis, the violin and baklava to the West. He invented the Mongolian written language, reinvigorated the Silk Road, introduced rice to Persia and enhanced trade across Asia. That’s why he was highlighted by Time magazine and CNN as one of the most notable figures of the last millennium.
Currently in residence at the Reagan Presidential Library, the exhibit has toured Chicago’s Field Museum, the Denver Museum and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.
“This has pulled in over a million visitors so far. We’re expecting 120,000,” Exploreum Acting Executive Director Don Comeaux told Artifice.
He pointed to “over 100,000” who saw the exhibit at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History in 2012. Comeaux said it hasn’t been “anywhere near” the Gulf Coast.
Timing it for Jan. 24 through April 28 optimizes tourism. Mardi Gras parades begin downtown just three weeks after the exhibit’s opening. Seasonal “snowbird” visitors will be here.
“Our goal is to go to the Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism to have a face-to-face and see what the state can do for us. It will have a statewide benefit,” Josh Holland, the Exploreum’s director of marketing and design, said. Those efforts will focus on a 250-mile radius.
The exhibit contains more than 380 artifacts, most from the 13th century, and even earlier. One jade piece is valued at $80,000. There are swords, pottery, longbows, saddles, armor, sculpture, a huge crossbow, a catapult, even a bronze firearm-type device.
An imposing bronze likeness of Khan will greet visitors upon entering. From there they will watch an informative film, then acquire identities, maybe a thief or spy, maybe a princess or warrior. As visitors proceed through the exhibit’s chronology, they follow the fate of their characters.
The complexity of summarizing Khan’s legacy will emerge. He ticked off boxes in both positive and negative columns.
He rose from poverty to pull together disparate tribes of a nomadic people scattered across central Asia’s vast steppes. Women were empowered, held as trusted advisers and could divorce their husbands. The Khan Empire disseminated scholars, artisans and doctors throughout the realm, enforced the rule of law, advanced through merit rather than birth and was notable for its high religious tolerance.
Still, their conquests were savage, leaving over 40 million enemy fatalities in their wake. The Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 killed from 800,000 to 2 million civilians, depending on sources cited. They have been accused of using bubonic plague as a biological weapon. Terror was a common tool. Imperial passports from grandson Kublai Khan’s era read, “I am the emissary of the Khan. If you defy me, you die.“
A ger, or yurt — portable tent-style homes Mongols still employ — will be erected downstairs. When visitors get to the gift shop, they will be able to buy anything from yak-hair socks to Mongolian board games.
Musicians, dancers and artisans with work visas will perform in a plaza-type setting multiple times daily. A mask-making workshop will take place. Even the Mongolian ambassador to the U.S. will be in town for the premiere.
IMAX films with Asian themes will be featured. There’s consideration of a Khan film festival featuring movies with his representation, such as “Night at the Museum” or “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
Exhibit creator Don Lessem will be on hand. A trained paleontologist, Lessem slowly assembled the exhibit after falling in love with the Mongol story during Asian fossil-hunting excursions. He approached Mike Sullivan, Exploreum director from 1999-2009, who told Lessem the venue wasn’t ready yet but it has since matured.
Sullivan oversaw a string of epic Exploreum exhibits during his era in Mobile. He passed away just under a month ago.
“This hasn’t happened since Mike [Sullivan] did it back in 2007. This is something Mike would have done, but now instead of then,” Comeaux said.