Traveling the Silk Road

 

 

 

When you think of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History (https://www.fernbankmuseum.org/) you may think of it as Atlanta’s home for dinosaurs. This would be true as the fossilized vignette of long-necked Argentinosaurus running from the sharp-toothed Giganotosaurus is impossible to miss (though many people think it’s a T-Rex, the media coordinator assures us that “it’s better than a T-Rex due to its superior size). 

 

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

However, overshadowed by a truly gigantic set of ribs, is a celebration of much more recent and far more human accomplishments. “Traveling the Silk Road” (https://www.fernbankmuseum.org/explore/special-exhibitions/traveling-the-silk-road/) is an exhibit that takes visitors along the path of what was once the world’s largest trade route. Museums are often seen as stuffy, antiquated, or merely inaccessible. This is why Fernbank has rebranded itself as “more than a museum,” focusing on creating an interactive experience for everyone in history, science, and human culture. “Traveling the Silk Road” celebrates human culture, attempting to create a connection for visitors with people that are not like them and that they would perhaps know next to nothing about otherwise. 

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

In the great hall, under the crisscrossed shadows of massive skeletons, lies the opening event, hosting a variety of booths relating to the exhibit. Most are aimed at helping children learn about different aspects of the silk road and the cultures common to it. Seeing how each booth tied into the museum’s mission of cultural education is delightful. Student volunteers teach visitors about different species of camels along with how camels, unlike horses, are able to walk across the sand, using a toilet plunger as an illustration of their wide feet. Outside, visitors can stroke a real camel in a pen; its thin neck seems far too delicate to carry hundreds of pounds of cargo. A woman shows a group of children how she uses dye to paint onto silk using a resist technique. Attendees sniff small jars of spices and hazard guesses as to what they are. Lavender? Oregano? Mustard seeds? All of these and more represent one of the most valuable commodities traded. Guests can make a blend to create their own taste of the Silk Road. 

 

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

The exhibit itself starts out dim, with bright-colored signs leading the way. Fabric walls lead visitors through the main cities of the Silk Road. The air smells sweet and almost cloying as children shout and chatter, perhaps as the Silk Road itself sounded (or perhaps just as a museum full of kids always sounds). Two large replicas of camels greet visitors, their backs loaded with goods ready to be traded in the markets. As you roam through this entrance, you see some basic facts about the silk road: the length in both time and miles, where a traveler would sleep, and the temperatures along the road, among others. Beyond the camels is a map of the road, highlighting the main route, secondary land routes, and any sea routes that were used. Ornate symbols dot the main route, marking the four main cities along the trade route and their importance in the movement of goods and knowledge along the silk road. 

 

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

The first city in the exhibit was Xi’an, China, the largest city in the world at the time and the start of the silk road. This portion of the exhibit discussed the cultural impact of the silk road, such as the movement of religion, music, art, and other cultural influences. This area also discussed the process of creating silk, from unraveling the cocoons to weaving the fabric. There was even a full-sized silk loom on display. It felt more traditionally museum-like, with historic items behind plexiglass protection and barriers to keep people away from the items not encased in plexiglass. 

 

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

The red fabric barriers shift to turquoise as we move from Xi’an to the oasis Turfan, where the night market display guides guests through what merchandise was sold in the many markets dotting the trade route. These include furs, gems, foods, medicines, pigments, aromatics, and even interactive smelling jars, featuring scents of patchouli, rose, and jasmine. These scents filled the exhibit and brought the atmosphere to another level. It also showed the irrigation system, called Karez, that allowed for Turfan to be a lush farming community in the middle of the desert.  

We then moved from the lush turquoise Turfan to the sandy Samarkand, where the importance of paper begins to come into play. Images discussing the history of paper-making and the process of making paper at the time of the silk road line the walls. As you move past the paper-making, you come into an open room with an LED table in the center. A map of the main trade route of the silk road is on the table, and buttons line the edge. As you press each button, information about the silk road pops up, lining up with the region it is associated with. This part of the exhibit gives visitors the opportunity to see how ideas and items, like languages, religion, art, and products, move along the silk road. It also shows how the climate and environment were along this main trade route. 

 

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

Visitors finish their immersive experience along the silk road in Baghdad, the center of learning in the eastern world. This was a central location for the Golden Age of Islam, where developments in numbers, astronomy, medicine, and time flourished and spread. The exhibit plays on these by featuring an interactive activity where visitors can tell time using an astrolabe by looking at the stars. Baghdad was also known for glass blowing, and techniques are shown through a portion of the exhibit where visitors can see and feel different methods of glass decoration that were used in this time period. 

 

Credit: Lillian Jackson and Maya Gelting

This exhibit is an educational and interesting look into the cultures that line the silk road. This exhibit manages to be interesting, interactive, and educational, especially for families with young children. The exhibit runs until January 5 and more information, as well as tickets, may be found on their website.