‘Islam and Heritage in Europe’ book review

A review of ‘Islam and Heritage in Europe- Pasts, Presents and Future Possibilities’ [2021] Edited by Katarzyna Puzon, Sharon Macdonald and Mirjam Shatanawi, Routledge. By John Reeve

This is a highly stimulating collection of essays by practitioners that moves on from generalities and narrow definitions and from the assumptions and well-funded pieties of the recent past. Fresh research and practice give it a welcome edge. It also builds on collections and conferences such as Islamic art and the museum: Approaches to art and archaeology of the Muslim world in the twenty-first century (2012) and Curating Islamic art worldwide: From Malacca to Manchester (2020) and embraces the more critically combative views of writers like Jessica Winegar, Wendy Shaw and Klas Grinell. Winegar asked back in 2008: ‘Can the emphasis on art as evidence of humanity really erase stereotypes of Middle Eastern Muslims as un-human destructive terrorists, or does this framing depend on these stereotypes for its own definition and execution?’ This book picks up this challenge and is particularly helpful on framing and how important it is for Muslim collaborators to frame projects and interventions for themselves, rather than using traditional academic or museum categories and power structures. I hadn’t realised for example that museums have recently been created by Muslims in Spain and Switzerland.

The context is not only post 9/11 but also post Trump [we hope] and in the wake of the revived anti-immigrant right across Europe, such as Pegida; the cranking up of culture wars under Christian umbrellas in Poland and Hungary; pervasive and toxic Islamophobia in Britain, China and India; but also the narrowly Islamist agendas in formerly secular states like Turkey; and of course the distinctive attitude of France to Islam and Muslims, which is discussed in illuminating depth.

The contributors reflect a healthy fusion of museum practitioners and academic researchers such as Mirjam Shatanawi who has combined both in her roles at the Tropenmuseum and also the museum studies school, the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam. In their introduction the editors explain: In looking at heritage, Islam and Europe, this volume seeks to productively trouble all of these terms and throw new light on the relationships between them. In this way, it contributes fresh insights to existing debates in heritage and museum studies, and to the discussion of Islam in Europe.

The ‘productive trouble’ includes pointing out the extraordinary self-limitations of the Louvre Islamic collections [nothing after Napoleon- western academic belief in decline in Islamic arts as in Chinese Indian and Persian art is a strong colonial and post-colonial trope]; and the hierarchy of collecting that consigns functional objects to the Branly, and any attention to living Islam as religion and to popular culture left to the Institute du Monde Arabe, jointly run by France and the Arab League. At least the BM has now brought the archaeology art and ethnography of the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] into one department. Germany and the Netherlands fare better here than France, with useful accounts of the pioneering Urban Islam project and others in Amsterdam and of recent initiatives in Berlin that are serious [and challenging] collaborations with Muslim participants rather than one off projects.

Mirjam Brusius ingeniously uses the Iraqi-American Michael Rakowitz’s fourth plinth sculpture in Trafalgar Square to reveal how museums and public art can help exiles feel connected [the maquettes were exhibited alongside the Assyrian sculptures that inspired it in the BM] but, in the case of the BP sponsored exhibit on ancient Iraq at the BM, also alienated and angry.

Jewish artist Michael Rakowitz unveile Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth sculpture. ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’ is a recreation of a deity destroyed by Islamic State. Source: Jewish News

The scope of this book is impressive- not only geographical [Muslim Russia as well as Muslim Spain] but also conceptual- an ethnomusicologist writes about the sonic world of cemeteries, another chapter focusses on taste and smell –particularly musk- and another is on young Muslim poets and ‘poetry slams’ inevitably called I-slams. It’s also user-focussed, which is surprisingly rare in this field as the editors point out: ‘Research on how Islam is transmitted, displayed and framed through museum representations remains relatively scarce.  This is remarkable considering the interest of critical museology in issues of social justice, and the focus on museums as spaces to counter prejudice and to confront racial  discrimination’ [p12]

Mirjam Shatanawi is optimistic about the possibilities for change and trenchant about the ‘structural injustice’ of the colonial past still alive in many museums and mindsets. As she points out: ‘Today the dichotomous model on which the institution of the museum is based, and the underlying hierarchy of cultures, prevent museums from achieving some of the social goals they set for themselves, that is: ‘to inspire hope and healing, improves lives and better the world’’ [p163]

This book is also commendably open access and available to read free of charge online, so do give it a go. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-edit/10.4324/9781003044789/islam-heritage-europe-katarzyna-puzon-sharon-macdonald-mirjam-shatanawi

Multqa: Museum as Meeting Point – Refugees as Guides in Berlin Museums: Syrian and Iraqi refugees are being trained as museum guides. Copyright: Museum fur Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen Berlin
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