It took four years and six curators for the British Museum to create a “sea-change” in its displays of Islamic art and artefacts. The museum’s treasures, from Ottoman ceramics to Mamluk mosque lamps, used to be shown in a small ground-floor space close to the museum’s back door. Now the museum’s new Gallery of the Islamic World, funded by the Albukhary Foundation of Malaysia, fills two high rooms with 1,600 objects in prime space at the building. This is not a simple gallery of Islamic art; it’s a place to get lost in. “We wanted to tell a different story,” said Venetia Porter, the influential curator for Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art. “We didn’t want to tell a story that was simply about Islamic art, but about the material culture of the Islamic world. We sat down and thought about the geography, and the geography is West Africa to Indonesia and China from the 7th century to the present day.” The displays, after the curators “dug deep” in the museum’s collection, range from “high objects of Islamic art to objects of every day”, she said.
There is the famous Blacas Ewer of metalwork from Mosul, Iraq, stunning lustre-ware from Kashan, Iran; dazzling tiles from Iran and Turkey. The Mamluk glass mosque lamps from Egypt remain spectacular; there is pre-Islamic work such as a divinely delicate funerary figure from Palymyra, or a stunning inscribed basalt boulder from Jordan. A 19th Century steel lion from Iran was a particular favourite. But alongside them are exhibits such as musical instruments, the Arabian lute or Persian tar, to backgammon games, and Turkish shadow puppets, and a pair of women’s bath clogs. “Musi is a highly developed art throughout the Islamic world, encompassing diverse styles,” one curator says.
Low-light systems allow the display of textiles, albums and books, illustrations on paper, and other delicate pieces such as a painted wood goldsmith’s box from Iran. Zoroastraian embroidery from Persia, or ceremonial robes from the Ottoman Empire, and Asia add splashes of colour to objects from those regions. There is a temporary display of brilliantly coloured festive dress from the Yemen, highlighting that country’s culture amid the tragic war there.
There is no dumbing-down in the galleries: with long texts on the objects the visitor is drawn into making connections century by century and country by country.
The Saudi Arabian artist Ahmad Angawi has created delicate patterned walnut wood screens covering five large windows, inspired by screens in Mecca, which create subtle frames of light. A temporary commission by the British-Pakistani artist Idris Khan, which covers one wall, is less impressive. The contemporary art in the museum’s collection gets a modest show; but a display of modern artists books includes Le Bouna, an illustrated story by Lebanon’s Shafic Abboud, and Etel Adnan’s Blessed Day.
The new gallery has had rave reviews from London critics. The Guardian calls it a “soaring miracle of art”. The Financial Times says the effect is “poignant and precious”.