Islam at the Metropolitan

Mukulika Banerjee (London School of Economics)
A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May 2011 was especially rewarding as I was allowed a preview of a soon-to-be-reopened section that will showcase the Met’s treasured collections from the Muslim world. This wing will compliment the Museum’s other collections from other great world civilizations, Greek and Roman, Egyptian, European and so on. But rather than ‘Islamic Arts’ the new wing will be called ‘Arts of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and later South Asia’. Innocuous as this innovation might seem to the casual visitor, it demonstrates a contemporary and fresh take on how we define and locate our understanding of the Muslim world and its civilisations. As Curator Dr. Navina Haider puts it, “Islam is much larger than a few countries put together; it is a religion, a philosophical system, whose meaning cannot be exhausted through artefacts.” Besides, unlike other civilizations, Islam does not coincide with a specific territory or country, it can be found as much in New York as in Tehran or Istanbul. The cluster of rooms are thus organised to reflect this. Each room houses the treasures from specific countries but also leads into and is flanked by others to which it is related in chronology, politics and influence.
Even under dustsheets and partitioned by temporary walls, the new wing looked truly sumptuous. Highlights include a meticulous recreation with original materials of a nobleman’s house with its exquisite proportions and intricate carvings, the mihrab of a mosque from Isfahan, a 24 ft. Mughal carpet cascading down a regal stage of marble, exquisite vessels that celebrate the discovery of cobalt dye and numerous paintings, manuscripts, and carpets. In each display, the thought that has gone into showing these treasures for maximum effect is in evidence: the non-reflecting angle of the glass on the cabinets housing manuscripts, the star shape of another echoing the shape of the roof, the innovative material to cover the walls of a modestly proportioned room to enhance its importance, the grouping of objects by colour to draw our attention to their form and so on.
The piece de resistance is without doubt the Moroccan courtyard that was still being constructed during my visit. With exquisite care and patience, doors, lintels and walls were being chiselled and shaped by artists who had been invited specially from the Maghreb. In the same spirit, a contemporary young British sculptor had been commissioned to recreate the missing centrepiece on an ancient water basin in another room. In these examples one sees in action the philosophy of such a museum; not only will these galleries display treasures from the past but they will also establish their links into the present. These examples demonstrate that the formidable skills required for creating masterpieces continue to exist in unknown artists in our contemporary world, even though their only signature is to be found in the beauty of the displays and in their occasional poetic defiance of museum planning to introduce innovations during the making, that are even better than what was commissioned in the blueprints.
Thus this new gallery at the Met breathes fresh life into the idea of civilisation itself. By walking through these rooms, one learns that while coherent, bounded and ambitious, civilisations are also porous, cumulative and inclusive. The water basin made from older Roman mosaics that were bordered by more recent motifs and hues, now being restored to its full glory by the work of a contemporary Western sculptor, is the perfect example of this idea. If one of the main aspirations of the creators of this new gallery is to show that Islam is not to be found ‘out there’ but to be discovered in its influences and insights everywhere in the world, it is a success. In this it is also a fitting tribute to the hugely influential writings of the scholar Edward Said who taught at Columbia University, just a few blocks up the grid in Manhattan. Said argued in his book Orientalism that the Orient was a creation of the mind, an act of power, a geographical fiction, rather than a place we could find by travelling to it. If the naming of the gallery aspired to show the breadth of the Islamic civilisation, the visitor has to only glance underfoot to experience this viscerally. The floors in each room are made from stone sourced from those countries – pale pink sandstone from India, burgundy from Turkey or ochre from Egypt. But in the spirit of this new gallery, the transitions between them are made through thresholds and doorways that have been shaped in the rich variety of arches, which Islamic civilisation brought to them.

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