D.C. exhibits take a broad look at life in the time of Columbus

October 29, 1991|By Cindy Schreuder | Cindy Schreuder,Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON BRB — WASHINGTON -- Think of it as the 15th century in three acts, playing in 30 rooms.

The National Gallery of Art's new exhibit "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration" depicts the state of artistic achievement at -- the time of Columbus through paintings, sculpture, scientific instruments, decorative objects and more.

But, shhhh, don't use the C-word too often. This elegant exhibit is about much more than an explorer with good navigating skills.

Instead, it reveals the sweep of history through the art of three regions: Europe and the Mediterranean from which Columbus hailed, the Far East that he expected to find, and the Americas that he actually encountered.

With more than 600 artifacts from 34 countries, special maps by the National Geographic Society, a 7 3/4 -pound companion guide equally suitable for reading and weight-lifting, and a special cafe menu of food and wine from the featured regions, "Circa 1492" is the most ambitious exhibit in the National Gallery's 50-year history.

Not to be outdone, curators at the National Museum of Natural History, next door to the art gallery on the National Mall, unveiled that institution's most grandiose exhibit to date, "Seeds of Change."

Like "Circa 1492," the Natural History Museum's display features hundreds of beautiful relics, descriptive maps, a hefty companion guide and almost as many spinoff programs as there were sailors on Columbus' first voyage.

"Seeds of Change," like "Circa 1492," hardly mentions the man.

The natural history exhibit is about what happened in the wake of Columbus the global transformations of biology and culture planted by five "seeds of change:" sugar, the horse, disease, corn and the potato.

Each exhibit is drawn from the vantage point of many cultures and peoples. In so doing, the exhibits have given the Important-White-Men-of-Europe approach long common to historical study a firm kick out the door.

"It isn't that the facts change, that historians cheat," said Alfred Crosby, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and a contributor to the "Seeds of Change" companion guide. "It's that the questions change. Questions dictate answers."

After nearly 500 years of Columbus studies, the explorer's historical lode had been tapped out. The time had come, Crosby said, to ask new questions about what happened in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

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