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TO OCT. 25
“Why would Americans care about Mongolia?” This condescending introductory question sets the tone for an exhibition that is as shallow as it is interesting. Hailing Mongolia’s supposed democratic tradition, the text-heavy show is pitched to viewers who aren’t expected to know or care about much of anything. Although the wall panels seem designed for a sixth-grade civics class, they do contain information of interest to grown-ups: One of the world’s most sparsely populated nations, Mongolia was once ruled by China, whose culture-destroying assimilation policy there presaged its treatment of Tibet. In 1919, Mongolians turned to the newly triumphant Bolsheviks, and in 1924, Mongolia became the world’s second Communist country. The Commies repressed Buddhism, undermined the traditional nomadic culture, and purged some 36,000 imagined class enemies—roughly 5 percent of the population. As the Soviet Union crumbled, Mongolians broke free, and in 1992, they ratified a constitution that—as a point-by-point comparison reveals—is more progressive than its American precursor. The result? Mongolians now can buy Pringles, Snickers, and L&M Filter cigarettes, according to a simulation of a Mongolian kiosk that stands, without apparent irony, a few steps away from the Smithsonian’s own “fine selection of gifts.” There are lots of fascinating artifacts here, including a ger (pictured, also known as a yurt) with surprisingly elaborate furnishings. As for the notion that Genghis Khan was a pioneering democrat, the exhibition doesn’t really make the case, but that may be just because the organizers thought Americans wouldn’t care. It’s on view from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (until Monday, Sept. 2, when the museum will revert to its regular daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. schedule), to Friday, Oct. 25, at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Mark Jenkins)