Humanising Islam: The educational potential of evocative artefacts representing the Islamic world

An article by Rabeeah Qureshi

Introduction

In Britain museums are attempting to better understand Islam’s religious and wider cultural association. Motivations may vary, but one of them is to respond to the dehumanising portrayal of the religion and its followers expressed in Western media in a post 9/11 era. These misrepresentations often portray Islam as monolithic, violent, a religion that oppresses women and clashes with Western liberalist ideas. Meanwhile, people are seeking to affirm the information encountered, to counter it, or divert attention from it (Revell, 2012; Rey, 2019; Reeve, 2017; Shatanawi, 2012).

In exploring the educational approach of artefacts representing the Islamic world in a museum setting aimed at the “informal learner” within the physical gallery space I was influenced by Virginie Rey’s argument that “museums have mobilised to service a peace-keeping agenda, taking it upon themselves to combat the tide of ignorance about Islam and offer a space for reconciliation” (Rey, 2019:250).  Graham Black believes that more recently, many museums are shaped by their “commitment to engage” rather than the primary goal of “convey(ing) information” (Black, 2012:77). In this article I will suggest that information can be conveyed through visitor engagement. I will evaluate the current ways my selected artefacts are being used and misused in their museums to represent the Islamic world and I will recommend ways in which museum visitors can build relationships with them through the process of engagement. These recommendations will encourage visitors to connect with the artefacts evocatively through means that are multi-sensory and “multi-voiced”. My argument is that evocative engagements with artefacts that represent the Islamic world are important to counter the dehumanised misconceptions of Islam portrayed in British media, and national museums located in areas with major Muslim populations are in a perfect and influential position to create such opportunities.

The two artefacts representing the Islamic world that I have chosen are in two national museums in London that mutually attempt to use an aesthetic approach despite surrounding social and political tensions outside. Figure 1 shows a twentieth century piece of the Kiswa, an embroidered black silk cloth that covers the Kaaba in Mecca which is displayed in the Islamic Middle East- Jameel Gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Figure 2 shows a late nineteenth century model of a section of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, made by Diego Fernandez Castro and displayed in the British Museum’s temporary exhibition Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced Western art (Greenwood and de Guise, 2019). Both artefacts mildly evoke some kind of emotion from the onlooker, but are frustratingly approached both objectively and distantly through mono-voiced and exclusively ocular practices. Unfortunately, this distant approach is not enough to humanise Islam effectively, and both museums have the potential to create greater evocative experiences to engage their visitors and create a better understanding of Islam.

Figure 1. Kiswa (1910), the Jameel Gallery, V&A
Figure 2. Diego Fernandez Castro’s Alhambra Model (late 19c), in BM:’ Inspired by the East’exhibition . loan from Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Use and Misuse of Artefacts 

Artefacts representing the Islamic world do not always have to serve an exclusively religious purpose, yet they can still display emotional values that connect to Islam’s general presence in one’s daily life.

The Kiswa (1910) is displayed in the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which opened in 2006, and was designed to:

develop interest in, and to promote understanding of the diversity of Islamic art, and to inspire in all people an appreciation of its beauty”. (Fakatseli and Sachs, 2008:8)

Once entering the gallery space, a useful world map shows the  expansion of Islam from the seventh to twentieth century, while the various artefacts show the diversity of media in Islamic art. It is the aim of appreciating the collection’s “beauty” that is bitter-sweet. This goal demonstrates a “peace-keeping” approach to the Islamic world with its focus on visual engagement with Islamic art, but lacks an understanding with the human beings who helped these artefacts come to life or made (make) meaningful connections with them today. Gokcigdem argues that “we typically only feel empathy for those who are like us” which can be “learned through lived experiences” and Demerash-Fatemi stresses that “it is our responsibility to design and create those lived experiences” (Demerash-Fatemi, in Norton-Wright 2020:20). This will lead to sincere understanding, compassion and respect between diverse visitors. The Kiswa, one of the most important sacred artefacts in Islam, is one of these artefacts that is displayed in a glass-case in a far overlooked corner under the section “Honouring the Dead” (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3. ‘Honouring the Dead’, V&A
Figure 4. The wall text accompanying the Kiswa

Aesthetically, the Jameel Gallery treats all its artefacts with equal importance (except for the Ardabil Carpet). However, it is still surprising to see the Kiswa, an artefact of great significance for Muslims, wastefully camouflaged amongst a large range of secular artefacts when it is one of the few artefacts in the gallery that had direct physical contact with the house of God in Islam for an entire year. This sacred significance does not have to apply to all artefacts labelled “Islamic”, but the Kiswa deserves to be given an evocative platform to show visitors how much it is valued by Muslims with the spiritual memories, narratives, sacrifices and motivations attached to it. It is an artefact that is looked upon ritualistically, touched, smelt, placed in peoples’ graves, and visualised in dreams by millions of Muslims across the globe for the past 1,400 years. It is relevant to or recognised by nearly all Muslims across time and space. Even the meaning of the inscription on the Kiswa holds emotional significance for Muslims and is directly associated with the first pillar of Islam, yet this is not mentioned in the gallery or on the V&A website. The Arabic in the gallery is not translated or transliterated. Even aesthetically, not all wall texts accompanying artefacts with Arabic inscriptions say that Arabic is written from right to left and is therefore ideally to be looked at from right to left (Blair and Bloom, 2003:169). The wall text comes as close to saying that this artefact cloaked the Kaaba and holds a divine significance for Muslims but does not efficiently illustrate how or why. Therefore, the informal learner would comparatively admire the design of its calligraphy and patterns with its accompanying artefacts, while merely acknowledging that it holds religious significance without being able to understand what makes it evocatively “beautiful” to others. While Muslims may connect with the Kiswa evocatively, recalling their dreams or memories of going to pilgrimage in Mecca, the method of its display in the Jameel Gallery divorces it from any evocative narrative for non-Muslim visitors. This is disappointing considering how well the V&A did to create narratives with their Sacred Spaces project. Although they claim to still refer back to Sacred Spaces to inform current practices, the lack of emotion communicated in the display of the Kiswa illustrates that more still needs to be done to create a spiritual understanding between visitors of different faiths or no faiths; especially in this politically tense time (Berns, 2012:222).

Castro’s Alhambra model [Figure 2] was part of a narrative to illustrate the artistic exchange between the East and West in the BM’s temporary exhibition Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced Western art (Greenwood and de Guise, 2019). The Director of the BM argues that the “exchange of ideas and visual stimulation are essential to shared understanding” sharing that this exhibition hopes to “clear a path towards mutual respect, understanding and global harmony” (ibid: 9). The exhibition’s three prominent themes were to show how Western artists copied designs from the Islamic world, how they showed their admiration for what was different and important to the subjects in their works, and how Western artists captured the “connection between the worshipper and the Almighty” in their paintings (Greenwood and de Guise, 2019:12). In contrast to the descriptive approach of the Jameel Gallery towards its artefacts as a peace-keeping strategy, the BM took the extra step to embed an evocative non-denigrative narrative of their artefacts. This aimed to counter the prejudices of “Orientalism” and remove the malign “them and us” attitude; reframing the term to mean artistic exchanges between the East and West. The narrative followed a chronological order, starting with early encounters between the Islamic world and the West with written entries describing how these witnesses felt towards each other (see Figure 5) and ended with more intimacy. This allowed the visitor to better grasp the curiosity, admiration and liveliness of the artefacts’ subjects and creators. In this way museums can enable visitors to challenge their perspective. The museum then, instead of being like a temple where facts are unquestionably accepted, becomes like another person with a view who the visitor can challenge from an equal position as if they were in a forum space (Sandell, 2007:26). Most paintings in the exhibition were accompanied by an artefact that was depicted in that painting, which made it easier for the visitor to relate to different sub-contexts as they walked through the gallery to shape their own learning.

Figure 5. One of the opening displays in Inspired by the East

The Alhambra model (Figure 2) is a copy of a fourteenth century bathhouse, whose designs Castro intended to preserve due to constant reconstructions. The wall text accompanying Castro’s model mentions three functions similar models served: to help repairs of the building; to be used by art and architecture students who could not physically travel; to be kept as souvenirs or given as gifts.  However there was no information about Castro’s motivation to create it nor to reflect his  interest in coexisting relations between Arabs and Christians nor that the Alhambra may have been conserved for reasons other than purely aesthetic ones. Praising the architecture and divorcing it from its human narrative is insufficient considering there is so much surviving literature showing how full of life this building was in the “Golden Age of Islam”.    

Another criticism of dehumanisation I have for both galleries is the historicization of their artefacts (Karp and Lavine, 1990:19; Reeve, 2017:175). This results in the absence and powerlessness of the represented to talk back. Bella Dicks expresses how this absence can be damaging educationally for the visitor:

“… their (the represented) artefacts or art, which are made to stand for them in their absence, are laid out as objects of the gaze… museums are powerful agencies for defining culture to the public, and for the public to define itself through viewing relations they embody” (Dicks, 2003:145-146)

The absence of contemporary Muslims, the “objects of the gaze” in a post 9/11 era, is evident through both museums exclusively using the voices of the curators to shape the ideas of “Islamic art”, “Orientalism” and the “Islamic world” to the public. Inspired by the East expresses the voices of the creators of their artefacts and paintings up to the year 2009, but these voices are filtered through the voice of the curator. There were 45 minute guided tours and fee-paying classes involving different speakers and multi-sensory activities on limited selected days, for people who were already open to learning about the Islamic world and the Middle East and willing to pay to attend them. These events need to be more accessible to the regular visitor who may have misconceptions about Islam due to what they hear in the British media, which reflects mostly on backwardness, oppression and proneness to violence. It is also important to compare and contrast what the artefacts meant in the past to how they relate to the contemporary visitor in order to overcome the view of Islam being monolithic and to show how diversely relevant Islam is in peoples’ lives today. This will prevent it from becoming a dehumanised “object of the gaze”.

The Educational Potential of the Artefacts

Adding multi-voiced and multi-sensory features to the artefacts discussed provides the visitor with more opportunities to make-meaning and empathise with various aspects of Islam. This could be done through reflecting on memories of represented communities (multi-voice) and facilitating new experiences for visitors to make new memories (multi-sensory).  Audio for the Kiswa could transmit memories of pilgrimage; for the Alhambra memories of Muslims and non-Muslims travelling to the Alhambra or encountering similar buildings with Islamic architecture. One successful example is the curator, Stefan Weber’s audio-guide in the Museum of Islamic Art Berlin, making the experience more personal for the visitor. The Longing for Mecca exhibition in Amsterdam and the World Gallery in the Horniman Museum displayed videos of members of the relative communities to illustrate how they engage with the artefacts on display evocatively. For example, Longing for Mecca included videos of Dutch pilgrims describing how they bonded as a family when they went to Mecca; a memory that could be evoked when engaging with the Kiswa (Golsche, 2012:32). The audio guide could be formatted to enable the visitor to choose whose narrative they would like to hear so the visitor may hear different experiences, as The Wellcome Collection provided for their Peruvian Mummy in Madness and Medicine which had audio buttons on the display for the visitor to select different interpretations. Using voices of relative communities has been successful in transmitting evocative memories in other museums, so there is no doubt that it will be effective here to humanise Islam. Audio can also contextualise the Kiswa and Alhambra model as it gives the visitor access to places or information they may never usually have access to. For example, the inscription on the Kiswa is from a section in the Qur’an that is also usually memorised by children due to its short length.

Figure 6. Main inscription on Alhambra

Since the British Museum and V&A focused on visual engagement with these artefacts, touch is another efficient sensory technique: “while touching I am being touched, while being touched I touch the other” (Geisbusch in Chatterjee, 2012:207). For controversial reasons  beyond conservation concerns, it is probably not wise to expose the Kiswa directly due to differing rules regarding touching verses from the Qur’an and also the fear of vandalism which is evident from St Mungo’s vandalism incident in Glasgow (Sandell, 2007:68). However, to create the authentic experience, a similar cloth could be used to replicate the feel of the Kiswa. The Kiswa is also perfumed when coating the Kaaba, so providing a similar scent will open a new dimension of access for non-Muslims while allowing Muslims to reminisce, share their experiences or fuel their dreams of visiting Mecca.

Conclusion

This article shows the importance of unlocking narratives of artefacts representing the Islamic world for the informal learner to empathise with, since divorcing the aesthetic from the human emotion previously attached to it will only dehumanise Islam. In a post 9/11 era of great social and political tension, museums can no longer ignore the positive opportunities that their visually-pleasing artefacts have the potential to evoke. An aesthetic approach is not a “peace-keeping” strategy, nor is it enough to allow the informal learner to engage efficiently. To counter the misrepresentations of Islam in the media, museums must try their best to facilitate the visitor experience, and two ways to do this effectively is by combining multi-voiced and multi-sensory features to access the artefact evocatively. By following successful examples already trialled in other museums, the BM and V&A’s experiments with facilitating emotions to access their own artefacts will not go to waste.

Rabeeah Qureshi (rabs.96@hotmail.co.uk)

Rabeeah is currently an MA student in the Art Design and Museology dept at UCL IOE


References   

Berns, S. (2012) ‘Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam’, Material Religion, 8 (4), pp. 543-544.

Black, G. (2012) Transforming the Museums in the 21st Century. London: Routledge.

Blair, S.S. and Bloom, J.M. (2003) ‘The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field’, The Art Bulletin, 85 (1), pp. 152-184.

Buggeln, G., Paine, C. and Plate, B. (2017) Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury.

Chatterjee, Helen and Leonie Hannan (eds) (2012) Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education London: Routledge

Community Jameel. (2010) Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. Available at: https://www.communityjameel.org/en/initiatives/arts-and-culture/jameel-gallery-of-islamic-art (Accessed 21 April 2020).

Dicks, B. (2003) ‘Out of the Glass Case’, in Culture on Display: The Production of Contemporary Visitability. London: Open University Press, pp. 144-169

Everyday Muslim. (2015) Ian Heath: Question of Access: Muslims, Museums and Heritage. Available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THpxJwE4sOc (Accessed 1 May 2020)

Fakatseli, O. and Sachs, J. (2008) The Jameel Gallery of the Middle East Summative Evaluation Report. Available at: http://media.vam.ac.uk/media/documents/legacy_documents/file_upload/47897_file.pdf (Accessed 28 April 2020)

Goltsche, L.M. (2014) ‘The Social Impact of Ethnological Museums in a Multicultural Society: How Exhibitions Can Act as Agents of Mutual Understanding Between Visitors of Different Cultural and Ethnic Backgrounds’, Leiden University Repository. Available at: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/28149 (Accessed 13 April 2020).

Greenwood, W. and de Guise, L. (eds.) (2019) Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced Western art. London: The British Museum Press.

Karp, I and Lavine, S.D. (eds.) (1990) Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Nightingale, E., Greene, M. (2010) ‘Religion and Material Culture at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design: the Perspectives of Diverse Faith Communities’, Material Religion, 6 (2), pp. 218-235.

Norton-Wright, J. (ed.) (2020) Curating Islamic Art Worldwide: From Malacca to Manchester. Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland AG. .Paine, C. (ed.) (2013) Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties. London: Bloomsbury.

Reeve, J. (2013) ‘A question of faith: The museum as a spiritual or secular space’, in Sandell, S. and Nightingale, E. (eds.) Museums, Equality and Social Justice. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, pp. 125-141.

Revell, L. (ed.) (2012) Islam and Education The Manipulation and Misrepresentation of a Religion. London: Institute of Education Press.

Rey, V. (2019) ‘Islam, Museums, and the Politics of Representation in the West’, Material Religion, 15 (2), pp. 250-252.

Sandell, R. (2007) Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference. New York: Routledge.

Saunderson, H. (2012) ‘’Do not touch’: A discussion on the problems of a limited sensory experience with objects in a gallery or museum context’, in Dudley, S. and Pearce, S. (eds.) The Thing about Museums. London: Routledge, pp. 159-170.

Shatanawi, M. (2012) Engaging Islam: Working with Muslim Communities in a Multicultural Society’, Curator: The Museum Journal, 55 (1), pp. 65-79.

List of illustrations

Figure 1: Victoria and Albert Museum: Collections (2017) Kiswah,
Available at: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O179205/section-of-the/ (Accessed 14 March 2020)

Figure 2: British Museum. (2019) Diego Fernandez Castro’s Alhambra model.
Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/inspired-east-how-islamic-world-influenced-western-art (Accessed 14 March 2020)

Figure 3: Jameel Gallery: “Honouring the Dead”. (2020)

Figure 4: Jameel Gallery: “Honouring the Dead” wall text. (2020)

Figure 5: Beginning of Inspired by the East exhibition. (2020)

Figure 6: Alhambra epigraphy in Dodds, J.D. (eds.) (1992) al-Andalus: the art of Islamic Spain. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 136

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