The Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe) in Paris, which has just turned 25, has completely revamped its interior design and contents. The institute will explore Islamic art as well as the pre-Islamic past of Arab countries, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, beliefs and ways of life that have coexisted in the Arabian peninsula and Africa for thousands of years.
"This change involved a new chronological approach," says Marie Foissy, the senior curator who led the reorganisation, "because, historically, the Arab identity coalesced before the arrival of Islam. We have tried to link it to the prehistoric cultures that preceded it and the civilisations that followed: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and Byzantium."
The oldest item on show was found at the neolithic site at Ain Ghazal in Jordan. This tiny (10cm-high) clay figure of a mother goddess, a universal symbol of fertility with her rounded belly, is a descendant of France's Lespugue Venus, which is 25,000 years old.
The change of atmosphere is immediately apparent on entering the museum, passing through a long gallery brought to life by scenes of busy streets and markets, with a barely audible buzz of sound mixing various languages and dialects - Arabic, Berber, Turkmen, Kurdish, Aramaic, Assyrian.
Among the most remarkable items, a series of alabaster heads opens the visit. They are the faces on funerary pillars from the second and third century before our era, found in southern Arabia (now Yemen). They are on loan from the Dubroff family collection, a marvellous stand-in for pieces promised by Yemen but held back by the country's current political turmoil.
The Arabia of legend, with its oases ruling over a land criss-crossed by countless caravans, owed its prosperity to trade in incense and myrrh. The precious alabaster figures suggest a very real link to the Suffering Man, from northern Arabia some 3,000 years earlier, which was the centrepiece of the Louvre Roads to Arabia exhibition.
The institute set up a special working group of archaeologists, historians, curators, anthropologists, ethnologists and linguists, headed by Foissy, to think of ways of addressing Arabia's multiple facets. "The visit is a tale, a story unfolding, intended to make visitors feel at home with the message of civilisation enshrined in the various communities which make up the Arab world," she explains.
It was decided to mix exhibits, with themes overlapping in space to illustrate the timeless quality of the spiritual quest. Certainly as the visit progresses there are some striking similarities: the Torah, Bible and Qur'an presented side by side, from the 12th and 14th century, are the same size and use the same materials: paper, gouache and gold.
All the rituals involve light to uplift prayer and purify worship: an eight-branched Kabylian chandelier made of painted terracotta stands beside a bronze Christian oil-lamp from Syria, a Copt light, a limestone cup from Carthage and a Hanukkah lamp, endlessly commemorating the rededication of the (second) temple in Jerusalem.
After this idealised, ecumenical vision of the pre-Islamic Arab world, the exhibition continues with a section devoted to daily life, from the sixth century to the present day. A new chapter, on the ongoing revolutions in the Arab world, has yet to be written.
The Arab World Institute was established in 1980 in Paris, in an agreement between France and 18 Arab countries, with the mission to disseminate information about the Arab world and conduct research into the Arabic language and the Arab world's cultural and spiritual values. The Institute also aims at promoting cooperation and cultural exchanges between France, Europe and the Arab world, particularly in the areas of science and technology.
"Arabic museum in Paris gets a new look for 25-year anniversary" Guardian UK March 13, 2012
"Arabe musÃ©e de Paris fait peau neuve pour 25 ans d'existence" RFI March 4, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today