The British Museum’s new Islamic world gallery is a triumph

The Louvre’s Islamic art section, renovated and expanded some 10 years ago if I recall correctly, is also impressive:

IT IS a striking object. The lyre (pictured below), dating from the 19th century, was used in Sudanese Zar ceremonies, in which individuals thought to be possessed by spirits (jinn) were exorcised. Its arms are adorned with items that might appease spectres: multi-coloured beads, traded by Europeans; assorted currencies from Cairo, Istanbul, Britain and Sumatra; and shells. The instrument may not be the obvious draw for a prospective visitor to a gallery of the Islamic world, but in its wonderful complexity it illustrates the diversity of the works, places and ideas on display at the British Museum’s new Albukhary Foundation Gallery.

The gallery, which was opened on October 18th, explores the geographical spread of Islam chronologically, from the 7th century to the modern day. Islam is wisely presented not as a monolithic culture, but a global one with many centres and peripheries; artefacts range from Spain to Nigeria to Indonesia. The displays are devoted to themes such as science, calligraphy, fashion and storytelling, and the visitor is led through historical periods and regions, reflecting the movement of art and ideas between cultures. A case displaying Islamic lustreware reveals a glaze perfected by Iraqi ceramicists in the 9th century; it is juxtaposed with a dish created by Italian potters in the 15th century, who had later mastered the same technique. Other skills were learnt and spread from one place to another: a 13th-century flask from Syria is decorated in gold and intertwining vegetation, a Byzantine style.

The new space lets the curators display more of the museum’s collection than was previously possible—archaeological finds as well as newly commissioned contemporary art—and create beautiful, expansive displays. This is particularly true of the “Reading the Skies” case, containing items related to astronomy and astrology. An astrolabe, considered the computer of the 10th century, has been taken apart and its composite layers arranged to show their design. The intricacy of the mechanism is staggering. According to William Greenwood, one of the curators, “one 10th-century astronomer estimated that there were a thousand possible applications for an astrolabe, ranging from the position of the stars to finding the direction of Mecca.” The design of this display, and many others throughout the gallery, elevates the objects. The lighting for a celestial globe, for example, is so subtle that it seems as if it might be lit by its own heavenly design. The “exploded astrolabe”, meanwhile, casts planet-like shadows across the wall.

This thoughtful marriage of scholarship and design is striking, even unconventional. A turquoise dish from 17th-century Iran has been turned over to reveal the labels of the previous exhibitions it appeared in. One is for a showcase of Persian art held at Burlington House in London in 1931, then the largest the city had ever seen, and visited by 250,000 people. The exhibition was organised as a “symphony of pure form” and focused solely on the decorous beauty of Islamic art; a New York Times correspondent of the time said it was “like stepping into a recreation of the Arabian nights”. The touch reveals the curators’ willingness to show how the objects have been acquired by the British Museum, as well as the clichéd perceptions of the Islamic world that have surrounded them.

The location of the new gallery makes a statement, too. Where the artefacts were once isolated in restrictive rooms in the northern section of the building, the exhibit is now on the second floor of the museum. It is next to the Sutton Hoo collection, a prestigious collection of treasures from an Anglo-Saxon burial, and alongside the rooms on medieval Europe, Greece and Rome, and the ancient near east. The relocation puts the Islamic world in conversation with the rest of global history.

The British Museum’s new gallery avoids the “Orientalism” of past exhibitions—essential given that the institution is facing intense criticism for the colonial provenance of some of its collection. The curators have created displays that approach the subjects and the artefacts with nuance, sensitivity and skill. At a time when Islamophobia and misconceptions about the religion are prevalent, it is a vital corrective.

Source: The British Museum’s new Islamic world gallery is a triumph

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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