Warning to children on Einstein exhibition

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am


An exhibition on Albert Einstein that rankled mainland officials now comes with a warning in Hong Kong.

In Beijing, the China Science and Technology Museum requested just 10 days before it opened last May that all references to the first world war be removed.

Now, a section of the exhibition in Hong Kong's Science Museum that deals with the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps has a disclaimer that says the contents are 'not suitable for children'.

A spokeswoman for the museum section of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department defended the need for the warning signs.

She said: 'Some images from the Holocaust may be disturbing to young children, so parents should have the option of knowing about it beforehand. Other than that, we are following the original exhibition's design faithfully.'

The move has the blessing of the exhibition's designer, Raphael Barbier, who said: 'It is just part of the Hong Kong culture and people only want to be 100 per cent sure and correct.'

An Israeli official based in Hong Kong took a similar view.

Emanuelle Amar, consul for administration, said: 'I can understand it, because it is the Hong Kong government's way of thinking, 'Be very gentle with people'.

'They can do whatever they want. This is legitimate.'

Controversy followed Einstein, the father of modern physics, around from the time he announced his theory of relativity in 1905. And there could be more on the way.

The exhibition, which began its tour in Beijing and was then shown at the Guangdong Science Centre for four months from November, is due to visit Shanghai after its stint in Hong Kong.

The city is where Einstein is said to have officially learned that he won the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics.

But authorities there are demanding that the exhibition be coupled with one about Confucius.

They have not specified what connection there is between the ancient philosopher and the modern scientist and the issue is still unresolved.

The censorship request in Beijing caused a row with the government of Switzerland, which financed the exhibition to celebrate more than 60 years of diplomatic relations with China. It firmly opposed the Beijing authorities' desire to remove all references to the first world war, a source closely connected to the exhibition said.

And it insisted the exhibition be shown as it was - given the relevance of the first world war to Einstein's life - or it would cancel the whole exhibition.

The museum eventually gave in and the exhibition, in its entirety, had at least 200,000 visitors in four months. The Swiss are just as opposed to the Shanghai demand for the additional material about Confucius.

It is not yet clear whether the exhibition will be staged there this autumn as scheduled, the source close to the situation said.

A similar incident occurred in 2002, when the mainland authorities censored parts of an Israeli exhibition about Einstein that described his Jewish and Zionist connections.

Israel eventually cancelled the exhibition.

But a Hong Kong historian was baffled by Beijing's attempt to wipe out the references to the first world war.

'I have no idea what's going on there. As I understand it, the first world war is not controversial at all now,' said Xu Guoqi, associate professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. Xu said that since the 1980s, the official line from Beijing has been that the pre-nationalist government during the first world war were national heroes who brought China into the new world order.

Previously, the Communist Party denounced the 'warlord era' government between 1916 and 1928.

Amar, the Israeli consul, said Einstein's connections to Judaism and Israel were essential to understanding him.

'There is a saying that people are their past and their future,' she said.

'I believe the fact that he was in the Holocaust meant, like others at the same time, he dreamt about a state for the Jews.

'I believe it also helped him to be ambitious and to deepen his search for whatever he discovered.

'When someone is trying to suppress you and to exterminate the Jewish people, you show that you are strong.'

Originally, it was intended to show the exhibition in Hong Kong in two parts, with the physics material in the Science Museum and the section dealing with his life and times in the History Museum.

But because of ticketing and staffing issues, the plan was scrapped and the two parts had to be shown in the same hall.

It brings together films, animations, original artefacts, replicas and documents that tell the story of Einstein's life and his revolutionary contributions to science.

The biographical part of the exhibition traces Einstein's Jewish roots, then follows him through successive periods of his life in Ulm and Munich in Germany, Zurich and Bern in Switzerland, Berlin and then Princeton, in the United States. His private life is set against world history.

Einstein was visiting the United States when Hitler came to power in 1933 and began imposing anti-Jewish laws. The scientist did not return to Germany.

As the second world war neared, he warned US president Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany was attempting to build nuclear weapons and urged America to beat them to it.

Later, he drew attention to the dangers of nuclear arms.

He was raised as a non-observant Jew. Later in life he was sympathetic to Jewish causes - even being offered the presidency of Israel in 1952, an offer he turned down - yet advocated co-operation with Palestinian Arabs.

The exhibition, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), will be shown in Hong Kong until the end of August.

Barbier said: 'I must say it has been a really pleasant experience working with the Hong Kong Science Museum. They are very dedicated and very professional.'

Financed by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, the exhibition has the joint patronage of Switzerland's Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey and Yang Jiechi, China's Minister of Foreign Affairs.