Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Museums: A Democratic Genghis Khan? Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Colleen P. Popson

[image] Portraits of Genghis Khan are common in Mongolia today. (Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

When most of us think about Mongolia's history, we conjure images of the fearsome and marauding Genghis Khan of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and, well, that's about it. Few realize that imposing, historic figure is partly responsible for the country's almost lightning-fast democratization (the communist government fell in May 1990; the first free, multiparty election was held in July the same year; and a new constitution was ratified in January 1992). Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan, an exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, promises to rectify this matter.

The exhibition, curated by Paula Sabloff, in cooperation with the National Museum of Mongolian History, runs until July. It centers around three life-sized gers, portable Mongolian houses used by nomadic groups, that show in rich detail how material culture reflects the social and political development of twentieth-century Mongolia. Furnishings and women's dress shift from highly ornate during the period of Manchu Chinese rule, for example, to strictly utilitarian under communism, to a hybrid of traditional and Western in the democratic present. Within the context of the third ger, representing modern democracy, Genghis Khan reclaims a place of eminence.

[image] A Mongolian house and Mercedes illustrate the mix of old and new. (Paula L.W. Sabloff) [LARGER IMAGE]

Based on evidence from The Secret Life of the Mongols, written soon after Genghis Khan's death in 1227 and required reading for modern Mongolian schoolchildren, this section of the exhibition argues that Genghis Khan instituted many of the same basic principles that form the foundation of modern democracy: participatory government, rule by law, equality under the law, and basic personal freedoms and human rights. Today, Mongolians glorify that period of power and independence and Genghis Khan as an inspiring figure. His name and image are everywhere, from posters and vodka bottles, to statues in government buildings.

A nicely illustrated publication accompanying the exhibition and sharing its name provides a comprehensive view of Genghis Khan and modern Mongolia.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America