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Out of Inner Mongolia : Exhibition Covers 3,500 Years of History--and Makes Some of Its Own


Genghis Khan has few peers in the annals of world history.

The Mongol conqueror, who lived from around 1167 to 1227, united nomadic tribes into a terrifyingly effective army and founded the largest land empire in history, stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan. His cultural achievements are less celebrated than his military and political genius, but the law and order he imposed on the Asian steppe fostered East-West exchanges along the system of trade routes known as the Silk Road.

With all those credits, few would dispute Genghis Khan's right to change his name from Temujin, or iron worker, to the Chinese equivalent of "universal ruler." Fewer still would question the marketing wisdom of attaching his moniker to a landmark exhibition, "Genghis Khan: Treasures From Inner Mongolia," which opens Sunday at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The show actually covers 3,500 years of history--most of them before Genghis' reign--but the American appetite for celebrities, violence and precious objects makes the title irresistible.

Nothing is routine about the display of artworks from China's legendary hinterlands, however.

"This is the first major exhibition of cultural relics from one of China's autonomous regions, and it comes at a timely moment," said Adam T. Kessler, a Los Angeles-based archeologist who organized the show. "Of all the areas in the People's Republic of China where archeological survey and excavation have been carried out, Inner Mongolia is one place that has made remarkable strides.

"For one thing, its (dry) climate has helped to preserve an astonishing array of ancient settlements, cities, burial sites and artifacts," he said. "The work of Inner Mongolian archeologists who have been laboring for decades in the field has resulted in finds that are nothing short of extraordinary."

None of the artworks in "Genghis Khan" have been previously exhibited in the West. Indeed, some of them have been unearthed during the past few years and are only known to a small circle of specialists. Among the treasures are a spectacular headdress from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) with a turquoise eagle atop a spiral of gold bas-relief, and a gilded bronze funerary mask from the Liao Dynasty (907-1125).

Reciting a litany of the show's unusual features, Kessler noted that it doesn't conform to regulations governing China's national treasures. An 18-month tour--proceeding from Los Angeles to the Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J., the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria--exceeds the customary 12-month limit for loans of artworks. A maximum of 100 objects is generally permitted to leave the country in a traveling exhibition, and no more than 15% of them can be plucked from rosters of "first category," or first-class, objects. But "Genghis Khan" contains more than 150 pieces and more than half of them are from the top echelon.

The exhibition is the first concrete example of the liberalization of Chinese policies regarding national treasures, Kessler said, and he hopes it will set a precedent. But impressive as these facts may be, he believes the show's primary value is educational.

"Most Westerners know of Genghis Khan and the Mongols," he said. "On the other hand--although we commonly acknowledge such maxims as 'Rome was not built in a day'--we tend to assume the spontaneous generation of a historical phenomenon such as the Mongols and to shroud their cultural heritage in a mysterious and impenetrably dark past." But Inner Mongolian archeologists emphasize the value of viewing the Mongol conquests as the culmination of a continuous historical process, rather than an isolated phenomenon, he said.

"I have designed this exhibition so that Western audiences can appreciate the fact that the Mongols were but the last in a long series of steppe empires to emerge from East Asia and were truly the inheritors of a rich and diverse past," he said.

The artworks tell a story beginning with the Stone Age and proceeding through the evolution of various empires. Text panels, maps, photographs and facsimiles--including a partial re-creation of a Mongol-era tomb--enhance the exhibition's educational and expository value.

So-called treasures shows--which foster appreciation for the cultural heritage of faraway places--are said to be a thing of the past because they have become too expensive or politically explosive to be worth the effort. But the flow of objects from Inner Mongolia is probably only beginning, Kessler said, because the region is a great archeological frontier and Inner Mongolians are eager to spread the word of their achievements.

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