Q&A: 'Dino Don' on Genghis Khan at Discovery Place
THE NEWEST EXHIBIT at Discovery Place takes viewers 10,000 years in the past, with a figure that can either divide or seem obscure to audiences, depending on the country. Genghis Khan (running through April 30) chronicles the life of the conqueror, the broader Mongol Empire, and the several ways he influenced the world. His empire popularized the concepts of paper money, tactics in war, passports, pants, forks, and even chopped meat.
The exhibit is curated by revered paleontological figure Don Lessem, known primarily for his work in writing and discussing dinosaurs. Lessem was an advisor on the first Jurassic Park film, as well as Disney properties that also deal with the Mesozoic beasts. In a Q&A with the magazine, Lessem talks about the origins of Genghis Khan.
(Writer’s note: I’ve been an armchair paleontologist since I was a child, and I’ve followed Dino Don for decades, so there’s going to be a bit of biased nerdiness in this one. My apologies.)
Charlotte Magazine: My understanding is that this exhibit is rooted in visiting Mongolia for dinosaur digs. Can you tell me about that?
Don Lessem: The first trip I took to Mongolia was back in 1990, and it’s full of dinosaurs, but it’s also the place where Genghis Khan is revered as a god-like figure. For me, I grew up with no education about him; I just thought he was a barbarian. So the contrast with the Genghis Khan that they know with the one we don’t know was so fascinating to me that I thought, I have to find a format for this. I saw so many artifacts that were fascinating to me there, too. So it was only a matter of seven years to put together an exhibit around it. (Laughs.)
CM: When you’re preparing something that’s more paleontological than archeological and with human artifacts, what is it like to work with recorded history?
DL: We had the curators from the Smithsonian and Mongolian experts. And then there’s the politics of it; they all fight with each other. You have to sort out among all the different opinions to find the story. But it’s exciting and it was challenging, to say the least, to deal with the Mongolian government, which changes about every week.
CM: When you’re dealing with objects that are 10,000 years old, how do you prepare those things for an exhibit?
DL: Well, Mongolia is a third-world country, so there’s very preservation done with objects. I would go in and see mummies that were sitting a trailer with no work done on them at all. We had to bring the experts in to repack everything, and we tried to send them back to Mongolia when their time was up in a much-better preserved state than when we got them. You owe it to them to do that. But that’s actually true with dinosaurs, as well, when you get them from third-world countries in a cardboard box, and they shouldn’t travel that way.
We received a mummy for this exhibit, and it arrived in a cardboard box without a head. We received a telegram that a head was arriving in another box. And then they changed governments again and wanted the mummy back.
CM: How does the feel to hold these objects, whether they’re 10,000 years old or 65 million years old? Do you feel the same reverence for both?
DL: It’s hair-raising. Because this is new to me, I actually have more excitement in holding these things that I know are part of an important history of a country. I feel like I’m more part of a mission, because he is so misunderstood, and so key to our world history and we don’t know it.
Dinosaurs have lots of proponents and people love them, so I’m already helping a cause. Here, I’m hoping to start one.