MODERN MONGOLIA: RECLAIMING GENGHIS KHAN,
ALL-NEW EXHIBITION OPENS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA MUSEUM
OCTOBER 20, 2001
* * * *
Cooperative Exhibition features Materials and Archival Photographs
from the National Museum of Mongolian History, Ulaanbaatar
|PHILADELPHIA, PAFor most Americans,
mention Genghis Khan and you elicit images of a fearful marauder who
swept through Eurasia in the 13th century, burning, pillaging and
destroying all in his path. Ask his descendants, the people of modern
Mongolia, about him, and you get a very different picture.
|On October 20, 2001, an all-new exhibition
that challenges our view of Genghis Khan opens at the University of
Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Modern Mongolia:
Reclaiming Genghis Khan, created by the University of Pennsylvania
Museum and the National Museum of Mongolian History, Ulaanbaatar,
Mongolia, invites the visitor to experience Mongolian life from the
beginning of the 20th century to today-and discover Genghis Khan's
lasting legacy to his people. The exhibition runs through June 1,
|Three life-size dioramas of gers
(the Mongolian word for yurt, the nomads' traditional home), feature
many of the exhibition's 192 Mongolian costumes and artifacts shown
in America for the first time. These gers and 35 rare archival
photographs reconstruct 20th-century nomadic life. Four films made
especially for the exhibition provide historic background and help
to illuminate Genghis Khan's relationship to contemporary Mongolians'
|"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," asserts
Dr. Paula L.W. Sabloff, Senior Research Scientist at the University
of Pennsylvania Museum and Curator of the new exhibition. In Dr. Sabloff's
recent anthropological research, Mongolians identified the democratic
principles they believe are their heritage from Genghis Khan, their
beloved ancestor. National independence, rule by law, equality under
the law, and religious freedom were high on their list.
|Mongolians formed a democratic,
capitalist society in 1992 when they voted for a new constitution,
following a century of extraordinary political struggles, social transformations,
and cultural continuity.
|About one-sixth the size of the United
States, Mongolia sits on a wind-swept plateau surrounded by two powerful
neighbors, Russia and China. The steppe temperature swings from 96°
Fahrenheit in the summers to below -6° in the winters. In this
harsh environment, Mongolians developed a nomadic culture more than
a thousand years before Genghis Khan was born (1162 AD).
|Today, 47% of the 2.4 million Mongolians
live as nomads in the countryside. City dwellers return to the countryside
for summer vacation. Many City dwellers and nomads alike know how
to milk animals, ride horses, and assemble a ger.
|Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis
Khan illustrates the impact of different kinds of government on
nomads' and city dwellers' everyday life. Mongolians experienced three
types of government -feudal, Communist, and democratic-over the last
century. The exhibition brings visitors right on home in each time
period-and in Mongolia, the traditional nomadic home is the ger,
as widely used today as in the time of Genghis Khan. A form of dwelling
at least 2,000 years old, the ger has a circular, aerodynamic
design that allows it to be broken down or reassembled in less than
an hour and transported easily by cart or camel back.
|Inside the exhibition hall, a complete
and authentic ger offers visitors a look inside a wealthy Mongolian
home in the beginning of the 20th century when Mongolia was under
the rule of the Manchu Dynasty of China. This ger is a national
treasure of the Mongolian people. A mother, father, grandmother and
child are represented wearing the traditional dress of the time from
Mongolia's dominant ethnic group, the Halh. The distinctive and ornate
deels (pronounced dells), or long robes worn by men, women and children
as well as vests, hats, sashes and ornamental boots, are on view.
The ger is richly furnished with hand-made felt carpet throughout,
a wooden bed, Chinese hearth, horse-head fiddle, extensive kitchen
and serving utensils, and paraphernalia associated with a herding
livelihood. A three-tiered wooden altar holds religious objects, indications
of the family's Tibetan Buddhist faith.
|Outside the ger, visitors encounter
full costuming of a Mongolian shaman and lama (a Tibetan Buddhist
monk of high standing), leaders of the two leading religions practiced
in Mongolia before the era of Soviet communism and religious pogroms.
|Between 1911 and 1921, Mongolians struggled
to free themselves from Chinese domination, appealing to Western nations,
Japan and Russia for aid. Chief among Mongolia's revolutionary heroes
was Suhbaatar. His military costume is located in a section that explains
the Mongolian leaders' decision to accept communism, an offshoot of
Mongolian acceptance of Russia's help to gain independence from China.
|From 1921, when the new government
leaders formed the Soviet-supported Mongolian People's Revolutionary
Party (the MPRP), to 1989, Mongolia was a Communist country and Soviet
|A half-ger illustrates both
the changes and continuity of life in Mongolia around the 1960s, during
the height of communism. From the subtle change of fabrics to the
blatant absence of religious objects, the new government's influence
on life is apparent everywhere. Clothing, once made of Tibetan or
Chinese silk, is now made of Russian cotton, and the style of women's
clothing is greatly modified. In place of the Buddhist altar, a chest
of drawers displays family photos. Schoolbooks and newspapers are
also new additions, attesting to increased educational opportunities
for all people.
|A final ger diorama set in 2000,
a decade after the Mongolian government formally embraced democratic
government, brings visitors face-to-face with the Mongolians of today.
With freedom of religion restored, a framed photo of the Dalai Lama,
spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, now sits on the chest alongside
photographs of family and friends. A wider exchange of ideas and a
developing capitalistic economy are also in evidence. Schoolbooks
include English language study, and a stack of newspapers brings in
national and international news. The family's clothing, a mixture
of Communist- and democratic-era items, shows the blend of old Soviet
and new international dress.
|The exhibition offers visitors a comparison
of the 1992 Mongolian and 1787 American constitutions, as well as
a distinctly Mongolian perspective on what democracy means and how
it is inspired by Genghis Khan's democratic principles. Dr. Sabloff's
1998-1999 research among Mongolians in the city and the countryside-and
among young Americans-is presented.
|In the end, it is the voice of the
Mongolian people themselves-through video interviews conducted in
the summer of 2000-that speak to the visitor of the heritage and the
future of Mongolia.
|To tell the story of Modern Mongolia,
Dr. Paula L.W. Sabloff worked closely with Associate Curator Dr. Dashdendev
Bumaa, Curator of Twentieth-Century History, and Assistant Curator
Ms. Eliot, Grady Bikales, Assistant Curator of Twentieth Century History,
both of the National Museum of Mongolian History.