Surprise: Museum Critic Attacks 'Manipulative' Exhibit on Science in the Muslim World
Get past the shallow headline on the front of Friday's Arts section ("A Golden Age in Science, Full of Light and Shadow") and you'll find an unusually blunt review by art critic Edward Rothstein of "1001 Inventions," an exhibition at the New York Hall of Science in Queens that claims that science during the so-called Dark Ages was a Golden Age of Islam. Rothstein criticized the exhibition for pandering and for being more concerned with boosting Muslim identity than with accurate scientific history.
There aren't 1,001 inventions on display, but those that are, along with the ideas described, are meant to show that the Western Dark Ages really were a Golden Age of Islam: a thousand years, in the show's reckoning, that lasted into the 17th century. During that era, the exhibition asserts, Muslim scientists and inventors, living in empires reaching from Spain to China, anticipated the innovations of the modern world.
There are serious problems with this exhibition, but this has had no effect on its international acclaim...
After a rundown of the exhibit's "tributes" to Islamic scientists, Rothstein took issue with the factual exaggerations and religious and political pandering of the exhibition.
Instead, it is as manipulative as it is illuminating. "1001 Inventions," we are told in the literature, "is a nonreligious and non-political project." But it actually is a little bit religious and considerably political.
It is less a typical science exhibition than a typical "identity" exhibition. It was created by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization in London, whose goal is "to popularize, spread and promote an accurate account of Muslim Heritage and its contribution." The show also tries to "instill confidence" and provide positive "role models" for young Muslims, as Mr. Hassani puts it in the book. And it is part of a "global educational initiative" that includes extensive classroom materials.
The promotional goal is evident in every display. The repeated suggestion is that Muslim scientists made discoveries later attributed to Westerners and that many Western institutions were shaped by Muslim contributions.
The exhibition, though, wildly overdoes it. First, it creates a straw man, reviving the notion, now defunct, of the Dark Ages. Then it overstates the neglect of Muslim science, which has, to the contrary, long been cited in Western scholarship. It also expands the Golden Age of Islam to a millennium, though the bright years were once associated with just portions of the Abbasid Caliphate, which itself lasted for about 500 years, from the eighth century to 1258. The show's inflated ambitions make it difficult to separate error from exaggeration, and implication from fact.
Sometimes Muslim precedence is suggested with even vaguer assertions. We read that Ibn Sina, in the 11th century, speculated about geological formations, "ideas that were developed, perhaps independently, by geologist James Hutton in the 18th century." Why "perhaps independently"? Is there any evidence of influence? Are the analyses comparable? How? Nothing is clear other than a vague sense of wrongful neglect.
Religious affiliation actually seems far more important here than is acknowledged, keeping some figures out and ushering others in. Christian Arab contributions go unheralded, but the 15th-century Chinese explorer Zheng He, a Muslim, is celebrated though he has no deep connection to Golden Age cultures.
Instead of expanding the perspective, the exhibition reduces it to caricature, showing Muslim culture rising out of a shadowy past to attain glories later misappropriated by Western epigones. Left unexplored too is how this tradition ended, leading to a long eclipse of science in Muslim lands. There is only a recurring hint of injustices done.
Rothstein suggested that excessive solicitude toward the Muslim world is to blame for the whitewash.
Perhaps because one tendency in the West, particularly after 9/11, has been to answer Muslim accusations of injustice (and even real attacks) with an exaggerated declaration of regard. It is guiltily offered as if in embarrassed compensation, inspired by a desire not to appear to tar Islam with the fervent claims made by its most violent adherents.