We spend a very nice Sunday morning exploring 1001 Inventions at the National Geographic Museum. I heard about this exhibit a few years ago on the BBC, and was really hoping it would go on the road. I forgot all about it until I learned that it actually had gone on the road and was in my own backyard. The basic idea is to spread the word about what the Muslim world was up to while us Europeans were busy trading plague fleas, arguing over whose Pope was the Pope, and generally treating anything vaguely sciency as witchcraft.
I was worried the message of the exhibit was going to be heavy handed, but it's quite far from it. The focus stays firmly on the science, with lots of hands on exhibits. They leave it up to well-informed western visitor to say "Hold on. This guy was actually testing Leonardo-esque flying machines 700 years before Leonardo just doodled about them." We're not the only ones subject it introspection though. The exhibit also does a good job of demonstrating what Muslim civilization is capable of when Jews, Kurds, and women get to contribute.
The centerpiece is a (sadly non-functional) replica of al-Jazari's elephant clock. This thing had everything a young geek would want to be included. The time-keeping is water driven, but the power is provided by a marble run and transmitted via dragon-headed levers, pulleys and cams. And, yes, it does have both bells and whistles. It sure would be nice to see this in action, but it's clear a 20-foot-high exhibit hall isn't enough for the full mechanism.
Other exhibits include a camera obscura, windmills, water wheels, the astrolabe and some nifty facts about numbers and algebra that I have to admit were new to me. I'm just glad there wasn't a hands-on for 10th century cataract surgery.
Sadly, it was the last weekend in our neck of the woods, but I'd recommend doing a better job of keeping an eye out for it than I did.