Michigan Science Center exhibition to highlight Golden Age of Innovation

As the president and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, Dr. Tonya Matthews is used to delayed gratification. The process of researching, identifying, evaluating, and negotiating to bring traveling exhibits to the Michigan Science Center can take years, sometimes longer.

So in 2014, when Matthews first talked with Ahmed Salim, co-founder and director of "1001 Inventions: Untold Stories From A Golden Age Of Innovation," they both knew that securing the exhibit's Detroit debut would require perseverance.

"When you contact some venues, you could hear, 'Well, maybe in 2025, we might be able to host then,'" Salim says. "It is quite difficult to align all the stars to make something happen."

But getting "1001 Inventions" to Detroit was important to a small group of dedicated people, including Matthews and those in The Friends of 1001 Inventions Michigan, a community organization dedicated to bringing the exhibition to the state.

Dr. Dima El-Gamal of The Friends of 1001 Inventions Michigan has been working since 2015 to help the Michigan Science Center book the exhibition. And on Saturday, Oct. 7, she and Matthews will finally see their hard work pay off, when "1001 Inventions" opens its doors in Midtown.

Dr. Tonya Matthews, executive director of the Michigan Science Center, with The Friends of 1001 Inventions Michigan

Thanks to El-Gamal's group and their fundraising efforts, the entire exhibition will be free with general admission to the Michigan Science Center—which is rare for an exhibition of the size, scale, and production quality of "1001 Inventions," according to Matthews.

"We believe that this exhibition will showcase our diversity, improve community cohesion, encourage curiosity, and contribute to revitalizing Detroit," El-Gamal says.

And the work was well worth it. "1001 Inventions" highlights an era of Muslim Civilization that coincided with the European Dark Ages—a period of almost 1,000 years and with a geographical location spanning from Spain to China. During this time, women and men achieved major scientific, artistic, and cultural advancements that still have an impact on society today. 

"'1001 Inventions' is essentially introducing a really big idea: this idea of the myth of the dark ages may have been true in some parts of the world, but not true everywhere," Salim says. "This myth of the dark ages, I experienced it myself in school many years ago. Most of the school curriculum, it states that after the fall of the Roman Empire, we have this period of almost 1,000 years of nothingness, and then we had the rise of the European Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution and the age we all enjoy. That was quite a difficult concept, because how can you have a period of human history where people just stopped doing things? 

"When you actually study it, the torch of enlightenment has been passed around. Many civilizations have contributed to scientific discovery."

This period of Muslim Civilization, also known as a Golden Age, might not be studied extensively in schools, but more than 250 million people in 30 cities around the world have experienced "1001 Inventions." Detroit is just the fourth American city, after New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., to host the exhibition. 

Kids in awe at a display in "1001 Inventions"

The exhibit highlights scientists, thinkers, scholars, and philosophers from this civilization who contributed big ideas to the world, including Ibn al-Haytham. Before al-Haytham, scientific debate was purely theoretical—that is, until his work in optics gave birth to the scientific method. 

"He established a mathematical scientific method of developing your hypothesis, studying it, revising that, producing your proofs, making sure it can be repeated under similar conditions," Salim says. "This had a major impact on the way science was developed in the Golden Age and still today. A number of historians call him the first true scientist, because of that major distinction."

Men and women like al-Haytham and their inventions and innovations are presented in the exhibition through hands-on exhibits, an introductory film starring Sir Ben Kingsley, live character performers who bring these historical figures to life, and an impressive elephant statue/clock, the centerpiece artwork of the exhibition and one of Matthews's favorite features.

When all of these aspects of the exhibit come together—history, technology, interactive experiences, live performance art, multimedia shows, and cultural archeology—the result is an experience that educates, entertains, and inspires.

"Many teachers have told us the materials have really helped enrich the teaching of science in schools, especially with underrepresented groups," Salim says. "When you have groups that have ethnic backgrounds, whether they are Asian, Middle Eastern, African—when they find they can relate to people from their own history, who have names like them and spoke languages like their ancestors, who also contributed to scientific discovery, it really helps demonstrate that science is global."

For Matthews, it's crucial to provide affordable access to this award-winning and groundbreaking exhibit. The innovative spirit of this era of Muslim Civilization has direct parallels to the resurgence Detroit is currently experiencing. 

"Throughout Detroit's history, innovation has been the engine at the core of our identity," Matthews says.

"This exhibition showcases how it takes many different minds to create innovation. When you think about the conversations that are happening around Detroit: the car industry is about to revolutionize itself, the information-technology industry is about to revolutionize, and we have folks that are trying to bring people here from all over the country. It takes all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, from all parts of the world to collaborate and create, and bring different perspectives, ideas, and challenges to the table."

"1001 Inventions: Untold Stories From A Golden Age Of Innovation" opens Oct. 7 at the Michigan Science Center. 

This article is part of a series on the state of STEM education and workforce development in Detroit. It is underwritten by the Michigan Science Center. Read more articles in the series here
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