At the end of August 2013, the popular and remarkably humble Prince Carl Philip of Sweden stepped out of a nondescript grey Volvo and into the Värmlands Museums in Karlstad city to launch the Scandinavian premiere of 1001 Inventions – an exhibition about the scientific and cultural achievements we’ve inherited from the Muslim world. Once inside he was greeted by a phalanx of young Swedes in costume playing the role of polymaths and pioneers with exceptionally non-Scandinavian names like Al-Jazari, Ibn Al-Haytham and Fatima Al-Fihri.
Following which the guest of honor was treated to the premiere showing of 1001 Inventions and The Library of Secrets, an educational film in the style of Harry Potter and starring Hollywood icon Sir Ben Kingsley, which has been responsible for making the 1001 Inventions brand a household name across the Middle East
and much of the Muslim world. Thanks to the more than thirty million downloads it’s achieved, not to mention awards recognition in London, Cannes and at the New York Film Festival, the film has played a huge role in inspiring Muslim youngsters to question the Eurocentric history they’ve inherited from the education systems created by the former colonial powers.
After a 15-minute introduction to some of the most celebrated and influential characters from the Middle Ages, the next stage of the show is an exhibition hall overflowing with video games, touchscreens, mechanical models and other interactive experiences designed to inspire youngsters to explore a medieval world that is much more illuminated than the “Dark Ages” narrative propagated in more old-fashioned school books and by movie-makers.
The surprise for many visitors will undoubtedly be the variety of peoples represented as part of what’s described as Muslim Civilization’s Golden Age by 1001 Inventions. The sages on show here include many Arabs, as you’d expect, but you’ll also find pioneering minds from Africa, India, Turkey, Europe, China and elsewhere – many of whom are Muslim, but many are obviously not, such as the Jewish physician and theologian Maimonides. And there’s no shortage of female role models either, with celebrated women from the worlds of medicine, engineering, education and literature being given prominent placement.
It’s the multicultural make-up of 1001 Inventions, eloquently refuting the religiously homogenous and male-dominated stereotype of the Muslim world, that’s likely attracted millions of visitors during the two years the exhibition was touring science centers in the USA. More than 200,000 came to see it when it was displayed at Washington DC’s National Geographic Museum, a stone’s throw away from the White House. A quarter of a million visitors walked through the doors for the exhibition’s residency at New York Hall of Science. While a whopping half a million explored the show when it was in situ at the colossal California Science Center complex.
Naturally, with these successes came the attentions of America’s right-wing Islamophobia industry spearheaded by the Republican Tea Party movement. The creators of 1001 Inventions are, unsurprisingly, at pains to point out that their exhibition is not about Islam
or even religion in general, and take every opportunity to emphasize the peer-reviewed academic oversight of their output.
“More than one hundred researchers and academics have been involved in putting together the content of 1001 Inventions,” explains Ahmed Salim, Producer and Director of the brand, “and our productions have been subject to far more academic scrutiny than possibly any other science exhibition you can name. That’s why we took the step of publishing citations for all our references online, so that there is public transparency about the facts we’re presenting to our audiences.”
Even so, the fact that the exhibition has been invited to some of the most respected science museums in Europe and North America – several of which insisted on getting the content independently verified before displaying it – has not dissuaded the anti-Islam bloggers from frothing at the thought of tax-payers footing the bill for “religious indoctrination” of children. (That the exhibition’s display costs have been covered by ticket sales and private donations is conveniently overlooked by right-wing critics.)
The exhibition isn’t short of endorsement from political luminaries and celebrity supporters either. Whilst in London during the first half of 2010, 1001 Inventions played host to visits by many British and Middle Eastern royals, as well as the Prime Minister of Turkey who presided over the exhibition’s launch in the center of Istanbul a few short months later. When it arrived in Los Angeles in 2011, it was officially opened by then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And the companion book to the exhibition’s foreword was written by the British heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
Meanwhile, the Western successes spurred the producers to create a second Arabic-English version for touring around the Middle East. Bringing a science exhibition to countries with no traditions of science entertainment, and a dearth of museums, brought a unique set of challenges. As Ahmed Salim explained: “In Europe and North America, we’ve usually brought the 1001 Inventions show to well-established venues with decades – even centuries – of experience in hosting science exhibitions. We’re working with partners who understand their audiences well and we’ve benefitted from their wisdom and expertise. For our tour of the Arabian Gulf, however, we faced a very different reality on the ground.
“So far, for most of our productions in the Middle East, we’ve had to create temporary structures to house the exhibition. It’s a practical solution to the special challenges we’ve faced when launching in the GCC, and it has allowed us to have much more control over the visitor experience and maintain the high quality of production we’ve always aimed to achieve.”
The number of visitors coming to see the show in sparsely populated GCC regions may not seem impressive when directly compared the show’s achievements in massive American conurbations, but they do represent large proportions of the local populations. And the audience numbers are almost certainly bolstered by endorsement from those nations’ rulers and royals.
In Abu Dhabi, as part of the city’s inaugural 2011 Science Festival, 1001 Inventions welcomed 80,000 local visitors in four weeks, representing almost 10% of the local population in the city. Six months later, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern city of Dhahran, the exhibition saw 100,000 people through its doors in a four-week period. And most recently, under the auspices of the country’s Emir, an impressive 80,000 guests came to see the show during a short four-week stint in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Ahmed Salim promises more Middle Eastern shows, including new productions, explaining: “We have a long term strategy introducing 1001 Inventions across the entire Middle East. We are planning new educational campaigns and new productions that will tell the stories of these scientific heroes in a lot more depth.
“Launching 1001 Inventions in the Middle East, and essentially inspiring a new market, has given our brand the experience necessary to make public engagement for science education and entertainment as much of a reality in the Arab
world as it is in the West. We’ll certainly be playing catch-up for a while, but there is a public demand and an affection for our work that makes our goal a lot easier to achieve.”
The 1001 Inventions brand is also expanding its reach further eastward towards the Asia Pacific region. A day after the royal launch in Sweden, and under the auspices of Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, a Bahasa Malay version of the exhibition opened at Kuala Lumpur’s National Science Centre, which marked the beginning of a three-year tour of the country.
While the Swedish host is welcoming an average of 1,000 people a day – representing a doubling of its usual visitor numbers – the Malaysian version is also being overwhelmed with visitors at its Asia Pacific premiere. This is, in part, due to the media fanfare that greeted the Deputy Prime Minister’s ceremonial opening of the exhibition, but there was already a local fan-base in the region well before the show arrived on Malaysian shores.
“We’ve got millions fans on social media,” explained Ahmed Salim, “and we estimated a good percentage of them Bahasa speakers. So we knew, prior to launch, that there was a lot of existing support for our brand in this part of the world. That's why it made sense to invest in the production of a Bahasa Malay exhibition in anticipation of an initial three-year tour. Currently, Malaysia’s National Science Centre is welcoming more than 20,000 visitors a week and we expect that to continue for the six month run here – making Kuala Lumpur one of our most popular residencies so far.”
So why has the 1001 Inventions brand managed to achieve mainstream success, while other similar projects have failed to capture the public imagination?
Firstly, there’s the academic credibility underpinning the production. Whilst there have undoubtedly been occasional accusations from fringe political groups about the reliability of the facts being presented, the open public dialogue about the academic process behind the 1001 Inventions production has earned it the respect of the world’s most esteemed science institutions.
Furthermore, the whole production observably steers clear of any religious bias, and the content both recognizes and celebrates the religious and ethnic diversity of the peoples living in the historic Muslim Civilization. This is in stark contrast to copycat productions from the Muslim world that focus entirely on the fallacious concept of “Islamic science” and celebrate “Muslim scientists”. (The worst offender, perhaps, being the much smaller but suspiciously similar Islamic Science Rediscovered exhibition that has failed to generate much in the way of endorsement or public enthusiasm. The 1001 Inventions producers also bemoan the existence of various bootlegs of their books that have made some “creative” religious amendments.)
Additionally, because of its academic strengths and historical honesty, 1001 Inventions has enjoyed unparalleled and vocal support from statesmen, diplomats and academics over the last few years. Indeed, the latest edition of the exhibition’s companion book, 1001 Inventions and The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, was published by National Geographic and managed to secure Britain’s Prince Charles as author of the foreword.
However, none of these achievements would matter if the exhibition didn’t impress and entertain an audience, and this is where its greatest strength lies. For the generation of children brought up with motion-sensitive video games and personal tablet computers, the 1001 Inventions experience will feel very comfortable. Unlike the exhibitions of old, where objects in glass cases were coupled with boring plaques of text, visiting this science show is an immersive and interactive journey replete with hi-tech touch screens and interactive displays. Children are transported to 10th century Spain, where they leap from a minaret and soar above an Andalusian town. Visitors learn the intricacies of aerodynamics in sailing, motor racing and fighter aircraft thanks to a wind-tunnel simulator. A motion-sensitive mini-planetarium demonstrates the influence Muslim Civilization has had on modern astronomy. Perhaps most impressive of all is the interactive Operating Theatre, where guests treat a virtual patient with the help of three historical physicians displayed on large LCD screens.
Many museum reviewers bemoan the energy of modern interactive learning experiences like 1001 Inventions as somehow less credible than the po-faced, untouchable and deathly silent exhibitions they enjoyed as children. To them, the sensory assault perpetrated by the likes of 1001 Inventions is downright offensive. However, the people who matter, the thronging crowds of children here excited flitting from one display to the next, would clearly disagree.
The 1001 Inventions exhibition is open to the public at the Värmlands Museums every day until January 19, 2014. Visit www.varmlandsmuseum.se for more information.
The Malaysian tour of 1001 Inventions has launched and is open daily at Pusat Sains Negara from 9am to 5pm through February 2014, with more details available from www.1001inventions.com.my
Review written by Adam Deen