The Metropolitan Museum of Art is in the final stages of a US$40 million (Dh147m) expansion. The project will not broaden the footprint of the largest art museum in the US, but 15 new galleries will display art of Islamic cultures from the Iberian peninsula to India. The Met puts the number of Islamic objects in its collection at some 12,000 – including 78 manuscript pages from the magnificent Iranian Book of Kings, or Shahnama, and the finest holdings of Islamic textiles in the West.
“It’s exceeded in numbers by the British Museum and the Berlin Museum for Islamic Art,” says Sheila Canby, the curator-in-charge who heads the Met’s department of Islamic art, “but those collections are formed of huge numbers of archaeological finds. The premise is a bit different here. We are a museum of art. Things have been collected in order to be shown, and not just as research material with drawers and drawers of shards.”
About 1,200 works will be on view in the new galleries at any given time, a fraction of the total holdings.
Nevertheless, it represents a huge increase over the 60 pieces exhibited on the balcony of the Met’s Great Hall during the eight years that the wing has been closed for renovation.
The New York museum has owned objects from the Islamic world since the 1890s. For decades, their place within the museum’s collections shifted – literally – from one gallery to another.
When Thomas Hoving became the director in 1967, the curator Maurice Sven Dimand called his attention to objects from Islamic lands. “Look at what you have, and put it on view,” Hoving recalled him saying in his memoir, Making the Mummies Dance. “This is the exceptional collection of its kind in America, and it is being neglected. I urge you to make the reinstallation of Islam your highest priority. If you were to create an Islamic Wing, you’d find that our holdings – splendid bronzes, excellent silver, majestic tiles, gorgeous carpets, intricate wood carving, masterful pottery and glorious miniatures – would become as popular as the European paintings.”
The Met, a private museum that gets a fraction of its annual budget from government sources, opened its galleries for Islamic art in 1975. A steady flow of visitors began. Then in 2003, the museum emptied that space to build Greek and Roman galleries beneath it. Like it or not, the Islamic galleries had to wait for work on those earlier empires to finish.
With the reopening planned for November 1, final touches are being applied before the art goes in.
“The big issue was, ’what are we going to call it?’,” says Navina Haidar, a curator who oversees the renovation and reinstallation. “Are we going to call it Islamic art, or are we going to name it in another way?”
Canby explains: “There’s a growing realisation that the Islamic world is larger than the territories that are covered by our collection, so we wanted to be accurate about what we are showing and where what we’re showing comes from.”
Hence a new name. “Above the door you will have the words, ‘Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia’. And, believe it or not, it does all fit,” says Haidar.
Inside the building, the acronym is a mouthful – ALTICALSA. To the side of the door, says Haidar, will be a map called The Islamic World.
The galleries take the visitor through time, patrons and geography, with portals conceived to favour cross-cultural perspectives. You’ll be able to go from a display of objects from the early caliphate into adjacent galleries exhibiting Orientalist paintings from 19th-century Europe. Non-Islamic objects from India that were made under Islamic rule are part of the wing, and will have a separate entrance.
The Early Caliphate (7th-13th centuries) is represented by objects from the Umayyad dynasty, centered in Damascus, and the early Abbasid dynasty, whose capital was Baghdad. Early Quran pages in Kufic script will be on view, along with lustre-painted pottery.
An adjoining gallery will display architectural decorations and other objects found in excavations made by the Met between 1935 and 1947 in Nishapur (Iran, mid-9th-early 12 centuries). The installation reconstructs the walls of a small chamber (the “Sabz Pushan Room”) decorated with plaster dadoes, fragments of paintings, and stalactite-shaped muqarnas. At the time of those digs, foreign museums, such as the Met and the British Museum, received a share of the objects unearthed.
Beyond a room of ceramics from the rule of the Seljuq Sultans (including a pair of life-size palace guards and a bronze incense burner in the form of a snarling lion), the patronage of mediaeval Cairo’s wealthy rulers is reflected in Fatimid woodwork and gold jewellery, and metalwork and enamelled glass from the Mamluk period (1250-1517).
For those galleries, the Met commissioned lamps from a Brooklyn glass studio to evoke Mamluk-era mosque lamps, according to Mary Ellen Buxton-Kutch of Pier Glass. “The size and shape are identical, but they are in clear glass, with bubbles in the glass,” she notes.
For a Moroccan court in galleries devoted to western Islamic art, the Met reached beyond Brooklyn to Fez, where curators found craftsmen to create a space in the style of late-mediaeval Andalusia, evoking the theme of the Garden of Paradise. The artisans arrived in New York last December. On a recent morning, Moroccan music played as the men carved and sanded cedar decorations.
“We wanted it to be an authentic connection between a crafts tradition and our very dignified space,” says Haidar, observing that it is Moroccan government policy to keep these crafts alive and active.
Noting the craftsmen’s experience in restoring national monuments, she adds: “The big challenge was scaling it all down. Those spaces are huge, so bringing it down to our minuscule size was a big operation.”
Nearby is an installation closer to completion: the Damascus Room, a 1707 Ottoman formal space, with a marble inlaid floor and carved and painted decorations that reflect the interplay between Turkish, Arab and European styles. A fountain in the room has been fashioned from earlier Mamluk-period tiles.
Throughout the galleries, curators identify works and styles with the patrons who commissioned them. American patrons were also crucial in bringing objects to the US. The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst purchased but never installed a painted and gilded Moorish-inspired 16th-century wooden ceiling from Spain, which was given to the Met in 1956.
The renovation of the galleries also rallied donors from the regions whose heritage will go on display. (So far, $30m of the $40m budget has been raised.) Two galleries for Ottoman art are named the Koc Family Galleries, in recognition of a $10m gift from the Vehbi Koc Foundation in Istanbul.
Another patron is Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani, the chairman and chief executive of RAK Petroleum, a company based in Ras al Khaimah.
“I first got acquainted with the Met as a student, about 1970,” says Mossavar-Rahmani, who has been a Met trustee for the past three years. Ten years ago, he became more active in raising funds for the Met in the Iranian-American community, which donates more than $1m at the annual Noruz at the Met, a celebration of the Iranian New Year. He explains that 2011 was the event’s sixth year of raising funds for the renovation and for programmes related to Iranian art. He and his wife, Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani, also endowed the galleries that exhibit the Shahnama and the dazzlingly intricate “Emperor’s Carpet”, which is thought to come from Herat in what used to be eastern Iran.
“I think it’s going to be the most spectacular space devoted to Islamic and Middle Eastern art anywhere in the western world,” he says. “It’s a tremendous statement that goes beyond the display of art and artefacts.
“Unfortunately, and for reasons good and bad, when one sees references to the Middle East and to Islam, it’s usually in the context of political upheaval, of terrorism, of fundamentalism, and a lot of negativity. This is a way to show a different face of Islam and the Middle East. It’s not the face that one tends to see in the public discourse, and it’s a tremendous corrective.”
Still, the new galleries reopen almost two months after the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2001, which, though a coincidence, offers an opportunity for the museum “to draw attention to the great cultural achievements of the Islamic world, at a time when there will inevitably be a discussion of more unfortunate events”, says the Met’s current director, Thomas P Campbell.
Ambrose Bierce observed that “war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”. Can art achieve that goal by other means? An American museum is determined to try.
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