Under the shade of the tent: Showing Islamic Arts today

The field of Islamic Arts is particularly difficult to grasp, as we discussed in a previous article, and through the challenge of defining and bringing coherence to a mostly uncharted territory, comes the equally challenging task of showing Islamic arts and educating the public on these unknown wonders.

In the recent years, efforts have been made by several institutions to transform the way Islamic arts are showcased, through a modernised scenography and reviewed themes and interpretations.

The literal darkness of Islamic Arts

Back in 2012, the Louvre reopened their Islamic arts department in a brand new space and installed their collection over two levels, designed by architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti. The top level, in the courtyard of the Denon wing, was covered by a wavy metallic structure offering some deemed light, supposed to evoke the Bedouin tents floating in the desert wind (I won’t mention the cliché). Natural light is absent from the lower level that stretches underground. Artefacts are elegantly displayed under very bright and small lights that contrast with the darkness of the room, emphasised by the black walls, floors and stands.

The department “Arts de l’Islam” in the Louvre, underground floor.

Before the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum in New York reopened their Islamic arts department with no less than 15 rooms displaying around 1.200 objects from the 12.000 items collection. While some rooms receive a decent amount of light, it is not the case for all, such as the gallery 460 dedicated to Ottoman arts. Doha Museum of Islamic Arts Museum, open in 2008, also presents the same characteristics1.

460 Art of the Ottoman Court-Koc Family Gallery
MET, gallery 460, Arts of the Ottoman Court. Credit: METmuseum

The new Islamic gallery of the British Museum opened in 2018 after 3 years of intense collaboration between the museum, the Albukhary Foundation who funded the project, designers such as Stanton Williams and lighting specialist Arup. Together, they shed a very welcome new light on the British Museum’ extensive collection of Islamic arts.
The challenge was big to display the most comprehensive selection, chosen among over 100.000 items that constitute the collection, while keeping a coherent and educational discourse. The new installation, in two large rooms, kept the ceiling glass tiles but covered the wall windows with modern jali, screens initially used in harem and zenazat and specially designed to see without being seen. The walls got covered by black panels and stands and the floor got varnished in a darker colour.

Despite the clever lighting, these two beautiful rooms are dark, very dark. This particular feature is less striking than in the lower level of the Louvre, but is still particularly evident when one stands on the doorstep of the next department.

Comparison pictures between the Islamic arts department (left) and the Europe department (right), taken from a single standpoint

This choice of palette and lighting (or lack of) already stroke me in 2008, during the wonderful exhibition around Shah Abbas I held by the British Museum. Natural light is absent from the temporary exhibition space of the museum, but it was then emphasised by the black everything and the bright lighting shed on the items. Somehow even the exhibition catalogue cover was mostly black, except for the elegant figure of Shah Abbas cut from one of the Chehel Sotul palace murals.

More recently, the small exhibition Inspired by the West, also in the British Museum, took a similar approach by choosing a minimalist scenography based on monochrome panels, red, black and ochre, as well as a dimmed light.

“Inspired by the East”, exhibition of the British Museum. Credit photo: Visiting London Guide.com

This type of sleek and minimalist scenography is becoming the norm in Western institutions, and was initially inspired by contemporary art galleries. The goals are to facilitate the viewing and serve a larger discourse around a theme – Islamic arts or other. Both depends on the exhibition atmosphere, created for the occasion by combining elements such as colour scheme, lighting, division of space through mobile sections and of course hanging. Depending on these, the atmosphere can be warm or cold, scientific or poetic, crowded or spacious, all impacting the viewing in a different way and leaving them with a unique feeling that determine their connection to the objects and the discourse. The cliché of all white art gallery walls with a few scarce paintings hanging is the bare minimum of art scenography. In these cases, the absence of distraction aims to facilitate the connection between the artwork and the viewer, while creating a sense of calm and neatness serving the same purpose.

Islamic arts exhibition rooms are getting darker in an attempt to help viewers connect with artefacts their have mostly little knowledge of, by creating an intimate atmosphere highlighting the intrinsic richness of the objects. The readers of this article are most likely specialists of the field, or at least familiar with it (if not, welcome!), but let us not forget that Islamic arts are still quite niche, and bringing traffic to these dedicated rooms can be a struggle. In the Louvre, though the new Denon wing has helped the democratisation of the field, the superb pixys of al-Mughira will never move crowds as much as the Mona Lisa.

Al-Mughira pyxis, Cordoba, 357H./ 968 (detail). The intricate decoration probably bears a political message, though the iconography remains debated. Louvre, OA4068.

A modern grand bazaar

This is where lies the contradiction of these rooms. While helping viewers connect with the objects is essential, the mission of modern museum is mostly to educate through a clear and coherent message. It is particularly difficult for the field of Islamic arts, as it is as large in time and space as it is diversified in terms of material, media and meaning. It seems almost impossible to answer the question “what is Islamic art” in a decisive manner, and museums are only left with the option to highlight this diversity through their most luxurious pieces.

The British Museum has chosen a dual approach in the new department, both chronological and thematic. Results an interesting hybrid, debatable in many points, but that features both classics (Iznik plates, Samarra woods, Takht-e Suleyman tiles, etc.) and less known productions, especially from South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“New Visual Culture”, one of the first sections in the new Islamic arts departement of the British Museum. The message here is quite unclear.

Despite some honourable mentions, the reading of the items displayed is quite difficult. The fault doesn’t fall on the British Museum only, as most museums and most exhibitions have the same problem. The small cartels don’t bring much information and, as often, are difficult to link to the objects. Remember for instance the itinerant exhibition Roads of Arabia, held in the Louvre in 2010. Was made the puzzling choice to show objects from left to right with the allocated cartels numbered from right to left, meaning that the viewer had to navigate alongside the glass case to read about a piece. Needless to say that the circulation was difficult.

This is of course not an issue exclusive to Islamic arts 2 but it becomes particularly problematic when combined with a large amount of items displayed in a restricted space, some pieces becoming virtually invisible.

Section “India and the World” in the British Museum. The picture was taken standing and facing the cartels, from the average viewer standpoint. Poor jade turtle, almost invisible!

What’s next for Islamic Arts exhibitions? 

While the exhibition spaces mentioned here are obviously doing their best to put Islamic arts in a modern and didactic light, they fall into the trap of traditional scenography. If the history of institutions has taught us anything, it is that there is not just one way to showcase artistic creation. From the Salon carré du Louvre from the 18th century, to Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless in present-day Tokyo, museography has evolved with the public3, and maybe Islamic arts are too complex for a classic scenography. It seems indeed pointless to try showcasing in a single section a Samanid dish and a glass work by Farmanfarmaian, though both falls under the same “Islamic” label. So far, I haven’t been truly impressed by any model of Islamic art exhibition rooms and museums 4 but the task is arduous.

Creating more space between artefacts could be a good start, though in restricted exhibition spaces such the British Museum’s, it is not always possible. Alternatively, putting the items in context as much as possible and recreating historical connections could help to popularise a field that is too often viewed as isolated. Sheila Canby exhibition on Shah ‘Abbas I was particularly successful in highlighting the link between Chinese ceramic, Ardabil Shrine architecture and the ruler tastes.

Mughal painting could constitute a very comprehensive starting point for an exhibition. The below page from the Saint-Petersburg album, attributed to Bishandas shows the emperor Jahangir entertaining Shah ‘Abbas I. It contains weapons, jewellery, fabrics and garments, glasswork, metalwork, but also two European items, a white ceramic ewer5 and a brass statuette of the goddess Diana on a ram. Displaying the painting and similar objects together could help viewers understand what they are looking at.

One could then extrapolate on the artistic exchanges between Mughal India and Safavid Iran through Shah ‘Abbas, then link Iran to the Chinese porcelain trade, then to European taste for China and the East (for instance through Marie-Antoinette chinoiseries and turqueries)… The possibilities are endless.
This would, however, require to rethink museums as they are currently conceived, a succession of thematic rooms and galleries with little connections between them. The investment in time and money would be substantial, and the financial difficulties of non-profit institutions are not to be ignored, but I believe the benefits would be rapidly measurable in terms of attendance levels.

Instead of a dark and confusing bazaar of objects, let’s give Islamic arts their place back in a global and intertwined art history.

  1. As well as the Jameel Gallery in the Victoria and Albert museum, but only sporadically. Last time I visited, in 2018, most lights were off and the magnificent Ardabil carpet (1539-40) was impossible to admire.
  2. Remembering the Marie-Antoinette exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris back in 2008, showing a life-size portrait of the queen and its cartel at the bottom of it, 40cm from the floor.
  3. Both have their perks. The Musée des Augustins in Toulouse (South of France) has a pair of rooms replicating the 18th-19th c. scenography, I highly recommend (the entire museum is a wonder)! Click here to see.
  4. Beside the Pergamon museum in Berlin, but mostly by the grandeur of the remains: Mshatta, the market gate of Miletus, Babylon walls… Simply breathtaking.
  5. Not in porcelain, as kaolin was discovered in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century only.