The Upper West Side cultural institution abounds with dioramas that illustrate how people lived in ancient times. But only its newest exhibit—which explores the fabled network of trade routes that connected China and the Middle East from 600 to 1200 A.D.—gives visitors the feeling that they’ve traveled to another place and era.
The installation is palpable: The winding, dim space is swathed in vibrant silk cloths, a subtle mix of spices fills the air, and East Asian string music plays quietly. Your first sight is of a life-size replica of a caravan of load-bearing camels, the standard means of transportation for Silk Road voyagers. Thus you embark on a journey to four ancient cities—Xi’an, Turfan, Samarkand and Baghdad—to learn how the flow of knowledge and goods affected each hub. You even get a make-believe passport to stamp at every stop.
While many of the displays speak to complicated themes, there’s plenty to keep children rapt: Wriggling silkworms spin cocoons underneath a glass top, and a 17-foot silk loom begs to be worked. In the Turfan Marketplace, tykes can lift the lids of wood barrels to sniff and guess the names of exotic oils. A display on the music of Xi’an features recordings of an ancient Chinese tune; kids can press buttons to activate the instruments individually or together. A jumbo TV-cum-storybook screens animated renderings of three tales: "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs," "The Lion and the Hare" and The Stonemason Who Was Never Satisfied."
Near the exhibition’s end is an electronic tabletop map of the entire Silk Road, with two dozen buttons that prompt computer-generated overlays of trade routes and trends. This high-tech device provides an opportunity to reflect on your journey, and to recall what you’ve learned from countless new angles.
To enhance your trip, visit on Sunday afternoons, when members of the Silk Road Ensemble, the musical group spearheaded by Yo-Yo Ma, will play concerts at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30pm.—Julia Israel.
"Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World" is on view at the American Museum of Natural History through Aug 15. $24, children ages 2 to 12 $14 (price includes regular museum admission).