26 October 2011
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) is opening 15 new galleries that feature 12,000 objects that aim to promote "mutual understanding and education".
The MET's original Islamic department closed in 2003. Now, on 1 November, the department reopens in a grandiose style with a suite of new galleries spanning a staggering 19,000 square feet of space.
The galleries, which are collectively named "Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia" provided a sneak-preview to the press on 24 October (pictured above).
The name may be cumbersome, but it is intentionally a long one. The curators are trying to underscore the richness and interconnectedness of the arts that reflect a melting pot of different cultures.
The organization of the 15 galleries is by geographical area, will emphasize the diversity of the Islamic world, over a span of thirteen hundred years, by underscoring the many distinct cultures within its fold.
Posters lined outside the museum urge passersby to "Rediscover the Islamic World".
At the ribbon-cutting preview for the galleries, Thomas P Campbell, the MET's director, was clear about the political urgency of the galleries.
"We must recognise," he told the 700 assembled invitees, which included politicians and donors, "that we live in a nation where a widespread consciousness about the Islamic world really did not exist until 10 years ago, and that awareness came at one of the darkest hours in American history."
He added: "It is our job and the great achievement of these galleries to educate our audience about the depths and magnificence of the Islamic tradition."
If the initiative is partly about educating people and attracting visitors to the museum, there is also a deeper, more subtle, message to convey: that the US takes the culture of the Islamic world seriously and is interested in exploring it beyond the cliches and the news headlines.
One of the first things visitors will see at the entrance to the new suite of galleries are two 15th-century examples of calligraphy from what is now Uzbekistan.
They are from what is thought to be the world's largest Qur'an, which, according to legend, was made for the ruler of the Timurid Dynasty only after the same calligrapher had made a copy that was so small it was rejected.
"So he went away and decided to do exactly the opposite," explains Ms. Navina Najat Haidar, the coordinator for the galleries.
"He then wrote it out so big that he had to tie it to a wheelbarrow and present it at the court."
"This shows two almost full pages and you get sense of a monumental Koran," she added.
"It's a very important thing for us to show right at the entrance, because we are the Islamic department and Islam is an essential binding thread throughout the installation."
There galleries offer a diversity of arts of every medium, from paintings to sculpures to handicrafts, scientific instruments and architecture. There is beautiful Arabic calligraphy next to ancient Qur'ans and ornate weaponry, including swords encrusted with rubies, silver and gold.
The world of sculpture is represented by Iranian statues, made from stucco, measuring a meter and a half (five feet) tall.
"We've allowed the objects to speak as they wish to speak, to be experienced as the visitor wishes to see them, giving all the relevant information," Ms. Haidar said.
"But we've opened up a connection to European Orientalism. We brought out Spain, North Africa and Southern Italy as a separate area, meaning eight centuries of Islam in Europe."
"China, that's an important story, and seeing the Islamic world through objects that have been borrowed from the Asian department."
One gem of the new galleries is the fully re-constructed reception room of a large residence in Damascus, dating back to the 18th century. Its marble floor has a geometric design with magnificent red velour pillows strewn throughout and its wooden walls are inscribed with verses from the Koran.
"It's one of the highlights of the galleries," curator Mechthild Baumeister said. "It's one of our biggest achievements."
Also from the world of architecture, there is an example of Indian windows made from intricately carved wood.
"With India we decided to show later India, Islamic and non-Islamic India as one interrelated culture, which it absolutely is. That is a slight correction because, in the old galleries, Islamic India had been extracted from everything else and other native material of the same period was not together with it and we managed to unite it all with a separate entrance space, which makes the viewer understand these objects not just as expressions of a single tradition but because the Indian culture is so hybrid. We've offered an extremely wide canvas for these objects."
Asked how these new galleries reflect or inform the grim political realities in the Islamic world today, Ms. Haidar said: "As you start thinking about audiences and how to make this material relevant to them and thinking of their world, that's when you begin thinking of contemporary politics and the contemporary world and trying to understand that the person might have this morning just read about the assassination attempt of the Saudi ambassador by Iranians. How do you help that person, offer some kind of platform to reconcile all the different things he's hearing about a single culture or a single place? We offer this long historical perspective."
"New York's Met Museum showcases a world of Islamic treasures" Guardian UK October 26, 2011
"Islam's treasures back on display at New York's Met " Times of Oman October 26, 2011
"New galleries for Islamic art treasures at the MET" MSNBC October 24, 2011
"New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia" MET October 26, 2011
Carol Vogel, "Islamic Objects of Desire" The new York Times October 21, 2011