Sultans of Science
Ontario Science Centre
Inclusive institutional programming showcases Islam's historical contribution to modern science and helps shift cultural stereotypes
Over a thousand years ago, the scientist Al-Zahrani mastered the techniques and tools of surgery. In the 12th century, a Mesopotamian known as Al-Jazari invented a mechanical device that represents history’s first robot. In 9th century Spain, long before the Wright Brothers, Abbas bin Firnas engineered the first flying machine when he strapped wings on his body to make the first recorded human flight.
These names, discoveries and inventions- all of which were made centuries ago at the height of Islamic civilization- have been largely lost to the mainstream modern world.
But that is changing. Interactive exhibits like “Sultans of Science: 1,000 years of Knowledge Rediscovered” at the Ontario Science Centre aim to educate the public on the scientific history that they are rarely taught.
Science, like culture, has diverse roots
By promoting awareness and valuing the diverse cultural and historical contributions to modern science, museums and science centres can play inclusive roles in multicultural societies. Indeed, institutional leaders attending the 2011 Science Centre World Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa, resolved to develop programs that promote awareness of the multicultural roots of science and the value of indigenous knowledge systems.
One such effort is currently on show in Canada’s largest city. Enthused by the popular response to the Sultans of Science: 1000 Years of Knowledge Rediscovered exhibition it hosted in 2009, the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto has brought back an enhanced version of it from March 7 to June 7, 2014 — in time to coincide with the opening of the 7th World Congress in Mechelen, Belgium.
It is a step back in time and highlights important advancements and discoveries made by scholars during the Golden Age of Islamic Science and the multicultural roots of modern science and technology. The exhibition centres around nine themes: flight; medical inventions; Islamic astronomy; mathematics, art and architecture; optical science; fine technology; applied hydrology; great explorers; and The House of Wisdom.
“The knowledge displayed in this exhibition is important to everyone in our diverse society,” says Lesley Lewis, CEO of the Ontario Science Centre. “It provides a glimpse into the history of science in a part of the world that our visitors may not be aware was home to great scientific discoveries.”
“Presenting this exhibition clearly demonstrates the science centre’s commitment to reflecting the diversity of the community and visitors to the centre,” Jehad Aliweiwi, a member of the centre’s board of trustees, was quoted as saying when centre first hosted the show.
Aliweiwi, who helped with marketing advice for the show, is a member of Maytree’s DiverseCity onBoard program designed to diversify leadership in the Greater Toronto Region. He says the immigrant perspective he brings on board is valued as the Ontario Science Centre is keen to attract and retain newcomers to its membership and visitor base.
While the exhibition is not political or religious in nature, its role in today’s political climate cannot be dismissed, says Aliweiwi. “There is an intense interest in anything that is Islamic and it is inevitably politicized Something like this goes beyond the politics and explains to people the richness and the long tradition of education and discovery that existed in this civilization.”
Aliweiwi is convinced this exhibit will be educational and inspirational for the Muslim community as well. “I am hoping some of the kids who come here will say this is where we were, and this is where we can go.” Along with celebrating diversity and promoting scientific discovery and innovation, the centre’s hand-on appeal can be a powerful motivators for students regardless of their cultural background.
It is potential benefits like this that has attracted a leading corporation like the Royal Bank of Canada to be the Sultan of Science’s local presenting sponsor. “We are so pleased to help bring this exhibition to Toronto,” says Imtiaz Seyid, Royal Bank of Canada Vice President, South Asian & Middle Eastern Market. “It’s a unique opportunity to explore and celebrate the diversity that makes our city so great.”
“Appreciating the efforts and contributions of the past will lead us to a more prosperous future,” says Ludo Verheyen, CEO of MTE Studios that developed the exhibit. “We hope that the exhibition encourages fruitful conversation, emphasizes the importance of preserving and transmitting knowledge and fosters further study of the mysteries of science.”
A four-metre replica of a musical boat featuring a mechanical “robot band” is an excellent example of this preservation and transmission. Featuring musicians and crew members that move gracefully, it brings to life early robotics and the ingenious mechanical devices of the time for a new generation of museum goers.
For further reading:
Making it Work for You:
- Public institutions grow in relevance and accountability when their services and programming reflect the diversity of the communities they serve
- How representative is your institution's board? Maybe it's time to benefit from the skill and innovation that diverse leaders bring on board
- Providing a broader understanding of culture, history and civilization helps shift perceptions and stereotypes.
- Effective intercultural integration is not always about direct programs or targets. It's also about creating ways to be more open and doing things differently