A peek inside the center's newest collaborative exhibit with the American Museum of Natural History

This Saturday, March 3, COSI will publicly unveil its newest exhibition, Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World, its second major collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History, following last fall’s dinosaur debut. Early Thursday morning, COSI leaders invited civic stakeholders and members of the media for a preview, allowing Columbus Monthly to get a sneak peek of the ambitious undertaking that marks a shift for the science center.

Shortly after Ohio State University’s Chinese Folk Music Orchestra wrapped up its pre-event performance, COSI president and CEO Frederic Bertley took the stage to welcome guests. He called up Amy Taylor, the COO of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., which helped establish the partnership between COSI and the museum. Then Bertley invited Azuka MuMin, COSI’s senior vice president for engagement and impact, to talk about the Silk Road exhibit. The ancient trading route stretched 4,600 miles, MuMin said, and it connected China to Central Asia and the Mediterranean.

From the podium, Bertley said that Silk Road, along with the dinosaur exhibit, is meant to expand the diversity and age range of COSI’s audience “from womb to tomb.” Later, he explained that this exhibition is part of the center’s decision to include more cultural fare, rather than only the hands-on science for which it’s known. Arts, culture, science—all of these fall into the category of the humanities, Bertley said, and it’s about integrating them together. Science is about advancing the human condition, he continued. It’s an elegant expression of the subject’s potential, and the exhibit provides an exemplary look at civilization’s progress by way of the cross-cultural interchange of ideas along the Silk Road. Taken as a whole, it's an encyclopedia, brought to life in 3-D.

The Silk Road, a collection of trade routes operating from about 100 BCE until the 15th century, was usually traversed on foot and took about six months to complete, though very few traveled the entire length. Temperatures ranged from 120 to -50 degrees. The road gained its name from the valuable silk trade, which originated in China, but commerce of all kinds passed through the network. Merchants traded fur, gems, ivory, nuts, fruits, vegetables, wine, beer, medicine, aromatics, pigments, dyes, wool, cotton, linen, hemp and glass.

As highlighted by the exhibit, the Silk Road also became a channel for the transmission of philosophies, education, culture, religion and technology. Nestorianism, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism were all spread through these travels.

The introduction of paper, which also originated in China, was transformative, allowing information and ideas to flow freely between places. The written word traveled to Islamic cultures, which took the lead in the study of science, language and literature. Samarkand, a major trading city for long-distance caravan merchants, became known for metalwork and fine papermaking. An interactive tabletop map in the exhibit space allows visitors to overlay information sets that show links among various cultures along the route.

The flow of ideas along the Silk Road helped Baghdad become the capital of the Islamic world, a cosmopolitan center of science, math, medicine and culture that helped form the foundation of learning in the West.

Beginning in the ninth and 10th centuries, maritime trade began to surpass the overland Silk Road in popularity. In the 13th century, Venetian merchant Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road to China and then returned by ship to the Persian port of Hormuz, but most Europeans didn’t begin sailing the route, which took them through the dangerous Indian Ocean, until after Vasco da Gama rounded the tip of Africa in 1497.