“1001 Inventions” is the exhibit showing at the New York Hall of Science in New York City (Queens). “The exhibition’s name invokes the Eastern exoticism of Scheherazade,” Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times this past December when the show opened, “but the show is in earnest about its claims.” Rothstein explains:
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. Conceived by a mechanical engineer, Salim T. S. al-Hassani, it began on a smaller scale touring British cities. It expanded into its current form at the London Science Museum this year, attracting 400,000 visitors, according to the show’s Web site. And its lavish companion book, “Muslim Heritage in Our World,” has won plaudits.
Rothstein refers to the Saudi film that played at the Boston Museum of Science (the same one that played at the Science Museum of Minnesota). He describes it as “almost a commercial travelogue about science’s future in Saudi Arabia.” He finds that peculiar, and he concludes his review with a thought that is even more timely now than it was when the review was published:
What is peculiar too is that the current Hall of Science show presumes a long neglect of Muslim innovations, but try finding anything comparable about Western discoveries for American students. Where is a systematic historical survey of the West’s great ideas and inventions in contemporary science museums, many of which now seem to have very different preoccupations?
In the meantime, in the interest of mutual understanding, some such show about Western science might perhaps be mounted in Riyadh or Tehran, just as this one was in London. Wouldn’t that be a tale worthy of Scheherazade? It might begin: “Take a look, if you dare.”
Rothstein looks at the exhibit with a gimlet eye. As I read him, he suggests that the exhibit may be, well, the 1002nd invention.