Review – Curating Islamic Art Worldwide: From Malacca to Manchester

Editor: Jenny Norton-Wright

Palgrave Macmillan Heritage Studies in the Muslim World, 2020

For anyone unable to attend the ambitious Manchester conference in 2017 this offers more than a tantalising glimpse and is a helpful contribution to ongoing debates. Refreshingly it includes Australian, Russian and Israeli takes on presenting Islamic cultures as well as western European and American. The conference was even more wide ranging and the editor observes that ‘During discussions in Manchester the only consensus was the impossibility of consensus…’! After 9.11 and in the context of meltdown in Iraq and Syria especially it is a big challenge to curate ‘empathically in an era of trauma and displacement’ as Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi puts it, reviewing recent US exhibitions of Islamic arts including ‘Pearls on a String’ in Baltimore and San Francisco. She also describes an exhibition of personal possessions brought by refugees from Syria and Iraq in Michigan in 2016.

Klas Grinell develops his critique of interpretation in galleries of Islamic arts analysing the way that forms of framing both structure and exclude in displays. Using the work of Beverly Serrell he advocates more use of one or two big ideas to focus display, rather than have them dictated by collections or curatorial interests. A later chapter on the new BM galleries suggests it is in fact possible to have several ideas and approaches interconnected and made attractive to different kinds of visitor- young people, students, Muslims, adults interested in textiles or history or connections with the rest of the world and with the pre- Islamic past in these countries. Like the Israeli exhibitions discussed here by Sharon Laor-Sirak, the BM also consistently integrates the contemporary with classic Islamic art.  

Galina Lasikova gives a fascinating account of the work initiated by the Mardjani Foundation in Russia in drawing public attention to Islamic culture through exhibitions [including at the Pushkin Museum] research and events, and now through proposals for a national museum dedicated to Islamic art. Other chapters look at the very different profile for Islamic culture in Australian museums [‘what have the Umayyads ever done for us?’!] and at reflexive curatorship in the Philippines. It’s especially encouraging to hear from Idries Trevathan on the challenges of presenting Islamic civilisation in a new Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He describes the processes of consultation and audience research: ‘ there was often no consensus on the permissibility of certain ideas, themes or objects that curators deemed contentious’ which clearly made it more difficult to think of terms of ‘shared universal and timeless values.’ Saudi children learn Islamic history without visual or material culture, so the new gallery has a significant role to play in widening the curriculum. In Dublin also the Chester Beatty Library is able to offer educational opportunities beyond the curriculum and the classroom. Jenny Siung, a pioneer in this area, and a member of the MAP for ID  lifelong learning project funded by the EU, explains how this has developed over the last 20 years, exploring world faiths, promoting cultural diversity with families, teenagers, communities, adults, trainee teachers, schools and colleges.

So all in all some remarkable progress for presenting Islamic cultures in often challenging contexts, and no more so than in the USA since 9 11. Kimberly Masteller looks at New Approaches to Collections, Installations and Audience Engagement in Kansas, Detroit and St Louis. As in other chapters the emphasis is on successful community partnerships. In the context of lockdown many museums across the world are rethinking their rationale and reconnecting to communities, and doing more with permanent collections and aiming to rely less on blockbuster shows. This book is a timely example of how this can be achieved with one particular kind of collection, and also of where the challenges lie.

John Reeve

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