It was during trips to Mongolia as a sponsor of several dinosaur excavations that former Boston Globe reporter Don Lessem became obsessed with finding out the truth behind Genghis Khan.
Lessem had heard the stories of the Mongol leader’s penchant for ruthless killing, but that didn’t track with the way he was revered among Mongolians. Everywhere he went, everything he saw — even hotels, coffee shops and beer — Lessem was reminded about the leader.
“Every single thing in the country is named for him,” he said. “He is celebrated.”
This fascination eventually led him to create the “Genghis Khan: The Great Civilizer” exhibit, currently featured at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in downtown Mobile.
The exhibit, Lessem said, helps dispel the “racist myths” about Khan and many of the “misconceptions” about his life.
It’s true Genghis Khan killed some of the people he conquered — it was a “factor of the times,” Lessem said — but the image of him as a mass murderer is inaccurate. More often he used “mental warfare” and helped to create the “largest peaceful civilization in the world.”
Lessem said Khan is responsible for introducing paper money, passports, hamburgers, gunpowder and many other things to the west.
“He brought sophisticated things from the east to the west,” he said.
It is true that Khan’s descendents are estimated to number roughly 25 million today, Lessem said.
“It has been shown that 8 percent of Asians and 1 percent of westerners have his DNA,” he said. “It’d be the same if you had 500 girlfriends and you killed all other opposition ….”
The exhibit, which includes native dancers and artists, took Lessem nine years to create. It has been on tour for seven years and been to three countries. It has been viewed by about 2 million visitors, he said.
For families who want to attend, Lessem said the exhibit is not “bloody” and the “coolest thing” is the dancers and others who perform live three times per day to the “same music that played during [Khan’s] time.”
The exhibit includes the “smells of Mongolia” and sets that help recreate Mongolia, Lessem said. It explores over 100 years from Khan’s time to that of his children and grandchildren. Of more than 250 artifacts, only three are replicas, Lessem said.
“I’ve worked with collectors from all over the world,” he said. “It keeps growing as collectors come and see it.”
Mobile is the exhibit’s only stop along the Gulf Coast, Lessem said.
Because of the expense of the exhibit, which includes housing the live performers at a local apartment, The Exploreum is charging everyone, even members, for the traveling exhibit through a special ticket kiosk.
For nonmember adults, the exhibit costs $17, or $22 if paired with one of two Imax movies. For adults who are members, the exhibit costs $6, or $12 if paired with Imax. Children 3-6 who are nonmembers will get in for $10. Children 3-6 who are members cost $5. The Imax combos range from $10 to $14 depending on membership.
One of the most challenging aspects of the exhibit, Exploreum Executive Director Don Comeaux said, was securing artist visas for the Mongolian performers. It was just part of an extensive planning process that took years, he said.
“We’ve been working on it for four years,” Comeaux said. “The setup took 21 days.”
The exhibit will be in town for 93 days and will invade the entire top floor of the Science Center at almost 8,000 square feet.
The exhibit, which opened on Jan. 26, has been received well so far by school and church groups, Comeaux said.