The empire of Genghis Khan in all its grandeur

Nantes. To introduce an exhibition on Genghis Khan (1162-1227), we might expect to see a fighter’s outfit, a representation of a horseman, or even a scene of conquest testifying to the violence of the battles imposed by the ruler’s horde. Mongolian. In Nantes, two unexpected objects open the exhibition subtitled “How the Mongols changed the world”: a diplomatic exchange between Philip the Fair and Ilkhan Arghun, Mongol conqueror of Persia, and a chasuble of gold, coming from the treasure of the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul church, but woven by the artisans of the Great Khan in the 13th century. Diplomatic and commercial connections are immediately highlighted in the preamble to this exhibition, announcing a journey which does not focus on military history, but seeks to understand the constitution and functioning of this gigantic empire.

Another preconceived idea is immediately shattered, thanks to exceptional objects: that of a Mongol empire coming out of nowhere, and sweeping across the world. On the contrary, the exhibition links the history of Genghis Khan’s conquests to the very long history of Mongolia, reconstructing a chronological timeline leading up to the 13th century indicating, from the mammoth plain to the medieval equestrian empires, the constant of these civilizations and the use of animal resources to adapt to environmental difficulties. An exceptional object thus evokes the central importance of deer before the arrival of the horse in the Mongolian steppes: the “sword of the heavens”, a ceremonial weapon dating from the 2nd millennium BC, whose pommel is decorated with a deer .

Recent archaeological discoveries

The Xiongnu (from 250 BCE) and Türk (7th century) empires are then presented as the great precursor states of the Mongol empire, centuries before its advent. Archaeological evidence allows us to glimpse highly structured societies, integrated into international exchange networks, with exceptional artisanal know-how, particularly in the field of goldsmithing. In the evocation of these Mongolian proto-empires, as for the following one, the exhibition benefits from its double curatorship: “the man in the field”, Jean-Paul Desroches, who excavated with his own hands some of the treasures presented here , and the historian Marie Favereau, who strongly renewed the approach to the subject with her work The horde, published at the beginning of the year (ed. Perrin). The journey thus embodies in three dimensions each of the historical arguments put forward.

The quality and unique nature of the objects presented meet the ambition to offer an innovative historical discourse on the Mongols. To describe the artistic continuum of Central Asia that Genghis Khan left as a legacy, masterpieces of Islamic glazed brick – from the Louvre or Sèvres – are brought together in a showcase. Very recent archaeological discoveries also punctuate the route, such as a small decorated quiver, or a gold-worked Moon-Sun set: objects carrying great symbolic value, from tombs. The entire route is also punctuated by small miniatures, most of them from the Stadtbibliothek in Berlin, rarely leaving their reserves. These are valuable indirect testimonies of court life under the Mongol Empire, which contrast with the purely military image of Epinal.

This military history is, however, well evoked, in a room, as well as by a well-designed digital tabletop device, retracing the major stages of Mongolian military history. The themes covered offer a complete picture of the functioning of this singular empire: political organization, religious tolerance, the role of women in power, the construction of cities by this nomadic people, commercial exchanges. By drawing on the rich material culture of this empire, the exhibition manages to paint a more accurate portrait than that which a collection of stirrups and arrowheads would have offered.

Poor presentation

The intellectually stimulating content, carried by a sharp and ambitious choice of objects, is unfortunately undermined by the scenography of the route, designed to be transported, and made up of large canvases most often displaying photographs of steppe landscapes. The maps or texts printed on these canvases are reduced to a minimal portion, and hardly legible, buried in flat and dispensable decorative elements. Despite some well-constructed display cases on the first floor, where the museum has recycled elements from its previous exhibition, the omnipresence of photographic reproductions and stretched canvases visually flattens the whole. If we perceive the signature of the Nantes History Museum in the proposed discourse (which competes with national novels and offers a connected history), the scenography lacks personality.

Chinese censorship followed by partnership with the Republic of Mongolia

Geopolitics. In February 2020, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne announced that it was ending its partnership with China in the preparation of its exhibition dedicated to Genghis Khan: Beijing had a tendency to interfere in the content of the future course, with untenable demands for the Nantes museum. Three years later, the exhibition finally opened, with a new partner, the Republic of Mongolia, and for the museum director, Bertrand Guillet, this change was beneficial: “The exhibition was greatly enriched by the notion of the great exchange; initially we were really focused on the constitution of the empire. » If the Mongolian government and diplomacy were directly involved in this project, this time there was no interference in the scientific work: the commissioners and the soft power Mongolians are on the same wavelength, promoting the notion of peace. With this state support and the contribution of major local collectors, the course has also gained major pieces. Soon, it will be France’s turn to send some choice objects to the Chinggis Khaan National Museum in Ulaanbaatar, inaugurated a year ago.

Sindbad Hammache

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