Earlier this year magazines and television networks were awash with articles and programs celebrating the 600th anniversary of the first voyage of China's greatest maritime explorer, Zheng He (
Both Time and the National Geographic magazines published lengthy articles about the famed eunuch admiral and Life magazine even went as far as to rank him as the 14th most important person of the last millennium.
While it might have taken the National Museum of History (
Having reportedly spent two years preparing for the exhibition, one would have thought that the museum's historians and curators would have had ample time to create a wonderfully in-depth and entertaining display packed with a wide range of exhibits and information. Sadly, however, the exhibition is one of the most shoddily organized exhibits the museum has ever put together.
It might boast over 200 artifacts, but it gives visitors only a fleeting glimpse of the exploits of China's famed maritime explorer and even less of an insight into the man himself. It's safe to assume that long deceased admiral would be turning in his grave if could see the way in which the museum has set about telling his story in an overly simplified and boring manner.
The first area deals with historical facts. The crux of this section is, however, overshadowed by the inclusion of a dozen replica boats. The models are colorful, well made and look fantastic and the information about each boat is enough to satisfy the appetites of most amateur historians. For example, we learn that the fleet consisted of 30,000 men and 300 ships, which included everything from huge treasure ships to smaller patrol boats and water tankers.
The second part proves a bigger disappointment than the first. Here visitors get to see how China's navy of the day navigated its way from China through the Indian Ocean to what is today the Saudi Arabian peninsular and Africa. It's pretty mundane stuff and unless you happen to be a 12-year-old school kid there's very little to learn here. Here visitors can also see a display of models of generic 15th century Chinese junks that were made in Belgium at the turn of the 20th century. Quite what these models have to do with Zheng He is anybody's guess and, while interesting to look at, they don't boast the same charm as those in the exhibition's first section.
The final part of the exhibition deals with artifacts from several of Zheng He's ports of call. There are over 100 porcelain, wood and pottery objects on display and they range from African tribal statuettes to Malayan tableware of the period.
The exhibition's most intellectually stimulating exhibit is a hand drawn Ming dynasty map (1368 to 1644) which plots Zheng He's travels from his base in the Yangze River delta through South East Asia. The map makes for an interesting few minutes for those with an understanding of Chinese characters. A more recent map published by China's nav allows visitors to plot Zheng He's course on a modern map and makes for equally engrossing viewing.