1001 Inventions Exhibition at the Science Museum
Published 20 July 2010
Opinions of historical periods differ depending on whose perspective one is viewing them through. In classrooms across London, England and the wider Western world the so-called Dark Ages are taught to be an era where there was very little technological, scientific and medical achievements. Not so, according to this highly illuminating exhibition that was at the Science Museum.
Having attracted hundreds of thousand of visitors, 1001 Inventions is considered by some to be one of London’s most successful exhibitions. This exhibition, which first came to the Science Museum in January and stayed until the end of June, aimed to dispel rumours about an era of history about which relatively little is known by uncovering a thousand years of forgotten or unheard of discoveries made in the Islamic Empire (a region spanning parts of Spain all the way across to China). It looks at how these discoveries helped to shape our modern world as we know it.
I went to see the exhibition during its closing days. Despite the sweltering heat and it being a weekday, 1001 Inventions seemed to be extremely popular with schools as a location for educational trips, along with tourists that had come to visit London as well as local Londoners. Housing more than 60 exhibits, games, activities and an educational film, there was something of interest for everyone. The many exhibits were displayed conveniently under seven different sections: the Universe, World, Town, Hospital, Market, School and Home, each section covering a different aspect of life or society.
As I entered the exhibition the first thing that caught my eye was the model of the great Elephant Clock invented by Al-Jazari around 800 years ago. This early clock takes inspiration from many different cultures: Arabian, African, Indian, Egyptian and Chinese, and incorporates elements from these in its design. Water falls through the timepiece at a steady rate and it activates a mechanism that causes the clock to strike every half an hour. The Elephant Clock was unlike any other time-keeping device I had seen before and it completely shattered my belief that the only way to tell the time in the “olden days” was by using a sun dial.
A little further along was a tray of medical equipment designed in the 10th century by a surgeon called Al-Zahrawi (called Albucasis in the western world). Much to my amazement I realised that some of the surgical equipment we currently use today such as scalpels, forceps and drills were invented over ten centuries ago! The exhibition also shows that the idea of immunising oneself against diseases and crucial aspects of blood flow were also developed during the Islamic empire.
Other interesting exhibits were: the world’s first flying machine invented by Abbas Ibn Firnas in the 9th century (1200 years before the Wright brothers), an interactive exhibit that explained the secret behind the way we write our numbers (it’s all to do with the number of corners in a numeral!), a display showing a model of Zheng He’s ship which was the largest wooden vessel ever invented, and an exhibit that illustrated that producing useful products from distillation (the method by which we produce petrol as well as other things) first occurred back in the 8th century.
1001 Inventions – Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World informs us about the strong and influential women of the ancient Islamic empire and their hand in aiding science and technology to move forward. Two such women include: Fatima Al-Fihri who was the founder of the world’s first university, and Merriam Al-Ijliya a women who lived during the 10th century and was an astrolabe-maker (an astrolabe being a device which could be used for telling the time and for land navigation), demonstrating that women have been working in the field of science and engineering for over a thousand years!
A short film titled “1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets” was also part of the exhibition. This globally acclaimed film starring Sir Ben Kingsley has won a multitude of awards from all across the world. Its many awards include: Grand Winner for Best Education Film, Gold Award for Best Photography and Gold Award for Best Writing amongst others. I thought the film was definitely a “must-see” part of the exhibition, being both interesting and informative.
The exhibition places great emphasis on the fact that 1001 Inventions is not just about Muslims making discoveries but that in the Muslim civilisation people of different faiths: Christian, Jewish, Sabean and Muslims all worked together to make new developments; in this era they built up their knowledge using ideas and discoveries from many other cultures including the Greek and Persians civilisations.
I think the multi-cultural aspect of this exhibition is great and it did a wonderful job of enlightening me about the discoveries made during the Dark Ages in the Islamic Empire. It is also nice to see Islamic influences in a positive light after all the bad press it has got in recent years.
Unfortunately as of the 30th of June, 1001 Inventions is no longer at the Science Museum. For all those that want to catch a glimpse of this exhibition of a Golden Age, it has now embarked on a high profile four year long global tour beginning with Istanbul. The plan now for 1001 Inventions is to showcase its exhibition all around the world, in many different languages.