I stamped my Silk Road passport at four locations, but didn’t have to leave New York to do it. I was "Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World," Nov. 14, 2009-Aug. 15, 2010, at the American Museum of Natural History.
I studied installations of walking camels as I started my imaginary journey of more than 4,000 miles from Xi’an, one capital of China during the Tang Dynasty with about a million people, then on to Turfan, a Central Asian oasis, to Samarkand, a lively trading center, and finally to Baghdad, portrayed as a hub of Muslim scholarly activity.
The trip had lots of entertaining moments -- seeing silk worms munching away, pushing buttons to listen to Chinese musical instruments, investigating sophisticated desert water systems, sniffing spices and seeing the exotic goods at a bazaar, and learning how to use an astrolabe. What I didn’t find was a lot of original art, except for ceramics and glass (often displayed in dim light).
I’ve loved the sweep and drama of earlier shows at the American Museum of Natural History, liked "Gold," but the museum’s usual mix of art and science, which had formerly beguiled, failed to work its magic this time.
My main problem with "Traveling the Silk Road" was that it felt too thin and too optimistic. Perhaps the subject was too large to fit into one exhibition -- not that the museum didn’t try. And perhaps its view of the past was more hopeful than most historical accounts, since for all the cultural borrowings, this long period had plenty of bloodshed.
The Silk Road was really a series of routes, both by land and sea, that developed over millennia. The show sticks to one east to west route and the period during which the Silk Road was at its height, between about 600 and 1200 CE. Because the show starts in Xi’an, China, during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE), the time element seems to have been narrowed a bit more, but we are still discussing almost 300 years of history by sampling the material culture of only four locations.
The exhibition does a good job of stressing that far more than silk passed along these trails. A model of a bazaar in Turfan allows visitors to walk by stalls holding a dazzling number of luxury goods from far-flung places -- fabrics, furs, gems, spices, oils, and foods.
Trade encouraged peaceful exchanges that included religious ideas (represented by a rubbing from a Nestorian Christian stele in China), scientific advances (such as silk cultivation, paper-making, and glass-blowing), but also lots and lots of conflicts. It’s not that they aren’t mentioned. Discussing Baghdad today means that, although its scholarly achievements are described, so too is the fact that the city has been wiped out a number of times.
One southern trade route, not mentioned in the show, stretched from Yunnan in the south to the north and west into Tibet and was called "cha ma dao." It was a road ("dao") where tea ("cha") was traded for war horses ("ma"). Just as important as the trade in goods and ideas were the wars that plagued the vast expanse covered by the Silk Routes. That gets lost amid the electronic maps and entertaining installations.
Another point not made about Tang China is that it was the golden age of Chinese poetry. One of my favorite authors, Du Fu or Tu Fu (712-770 CE) experienced the capital being changed during the Tang because of repeated incursions and even an internal rebellion that forced the imperial family to flee. Here’s an excerpt from his poem "The Battle at Chentao," in a wonderful translation by David Young:
. . . forty thousand dead, they say
all in a single day
The Mongols return to camp
and wash their blood-black arrows
sing their savage songs
cavort drunk in the marketplace
and the people of this capital face north
their faces weeping
hoping day and night for reinforcements
to come and make things right.
It’s sad and represents only one facet of Silk road history, but you won’t sense anything like this in "Traveling the Silk Road." The world of the Silk Routes was much messier than this show implies.
So don’t expect a giant dose of history, more like nibbles and factoids. Take the kids and enjoy the installations and hands-on displays. But if you’re an adult and appreciate Asian art, go the Metropolitan Museum of Art afterward by yourself. You might want to read a little history, too.
"Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World," Nov. 14, 2009-Aug. 15, 2010, at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, N.Y. 10024.
The exhibition is subsequently scheduled to appear at the National Museum of Natural Science in Taichung, Taiwan (June 11-Sept. 11, 2011), the National Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan (Oct. 29, 2011-Jan. 29, 2012), the National Museum of Australia in Canberra (Mar. 31-Aug. 12, 2012), and the Azienda Speciale Palaexpo in Rome (Nov. 24, 2012-Mar. 25, 2013).
N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.