November 2011, ARTnews

A More Nuanced Story

The Metropolitan Museum's expanded Islamic galleries reflect changes in the political, social and religious landscape

The Metropolitan Museum of Art began acquiring Islamic artworks in 1874, but for the next 50 years building this collection was “a casual and intermittent phenomenon,” according to its late curator Richard Ettinghausen. Eventually, however, the Met’s holdings in what Ettinghausen called “a rather esoteric field” grew to be perhaps the most comprehensive on the globe.

The opening this month of the expanded and renovated Islamic galleries brings the eminent collection back to public view after an eight-year hiatus. The galleries closed in 2003, two years after the 9/11 attacks that led the United States into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Popular interest in Islamic cultures has been growing, and this year’s uprising in many Arab nations has intensified it.

“No body of art today is so charged with political, emotional, and religious tensions,” as the works destined for the new galleries, says Michael Barry, lecturer in Islamic culture at Princeton University who headed the Met’s Department of Islamic Art from 2005-2008. Those tensions, in part, lie behind the installation’s new title: the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

“It’s a mouthful,” said Daniel Walker, Barry’s predecessor at the Met who now works at the Art Institute of Chicago. Walker argues that “political correctness” played a role in choosing the lengthy title, but he and other curators said that many other museums are grappling with revised nomenclature for art stemming from the vast geographic area in which Muslims live.

The Met last reinstalled its Islamic galleries under Ettinghausen’s leadership in 1975. “The world has changed so much since then,” said Navina Haidar, associate curator and the coordinator in charge of the new galleries. “The Muslim world has become practically a global thing.” The new display will attempt to convey far more cultural diversity, she says, and a greater sense of place in addition to underlining interconnections between Muslim and non-Muslim cultures.

Curator Sheila Canby says that the addition of 5,000 square feet to the Islamic galleries has enabled the museum to improve the flow of visitors through the exhibition. “We’re trying to tell a more nuanced or a different story that brings up the specificity of certain regional styles and techniques,” Canby said.

Located on the second floor of the museum’s south wing, above the Greek and Roman galleries, the new Islamic galleries are grouped by geographic region around a central court. White marble portals give a sense of unity to the suite of 15 rooms, which retain the wing’s original grand proportions, built in 1913 to the neo-classical design of McKim, Mead & White. The reconstruction was the work of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, the museum’s longtime architects responsible for its master plan.

The works range in date from the seventh to the early 20th century and were created in locales from Spain and Morocco in the west to South Asia in the east. The Met’s existing collection of 12,500 objects is being augmented by Islamic masterpieces on long-term loan from the Hispanic Society of America, which lacks the space to display them at its own upper-Manhattan headquarters.

In the course of reenvisioning the galleries, the entire collection has been carefully restored. A highlight is a sumptuous wood paneled chamber built in 1707 known as the Damascus Room, refurbished by conservators who spent several weeks in the Syrian capital studying comparable rooms. The Damascus Room has been resituated and reconfigured so that its parts are now correctly arranged and the Arabic poetry written on its wall panels can be read in a logical progression, which was not the case previously. But since parts of the original room remain scattered, with pieces housed at New York University’s Center for Near East Studies and others at Doris Duke’s former residence in Hawaii, digital photographic images printed on fabric panels substitute for some of the missing elements.

A stunning addition to the galleries is the Moroccan courtyard. Fifteen Moroccan craftsmen worked for months to create a brand new Maghrebi-Andalusian court in 14th century style, complete with delicate arches, intricate plaster work and mosaic tiles. Another gallery displays the 16th century Moorish-influenced painted and gilded wood ceiling that was purchased in the 1920s for William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon Castle. It has been restored and installed above a space that showcases Ottoman carpets and textiles.

As ARTnews went to press, the Met said it had raised three-quarters of the $40 million cost of the project. Ten million is coming from Bijan Mossavar-Rhamani, an oil-and-energy magnate who recently joined the Met’s board of trustees, and his wife, Sharmin, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, for exhibition spaces devoted to Persian art. Another $10 million has been given by the Istanbul-based Vehbi Koc Foundation for galleries showcasing Ottoman art. And the Patti and Everett B. Birch Foundation has donated an unspecified amount.

The reopening of the Islamic galleries at the Met comes as the Louvre is undertaking a major expansion of its Islamic galleries and follows the renovation of Islamic art displays at several museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts and the David Collection in Copenhagen, as well as the 2008 opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

Raising funds for the new galleries could lead the Manhattan museum into political minefields. Prince al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia, gave the Louvre over $25 million for its Islamic galleries and has funded Islamic study programs at Harvard and Georgetown universities, but the Met has refused to comment on whether the prince was approached for funds or offered them. Such a gift would surely provoke controversy in New York, where in October 2001 then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani returned a $10 million check given to the city by the prince for disaster relief after the prince suggested that U.S. policies in the Middle East contributed to the 9/11 attacks.

“After 9/11, perceptions changed,” says Canby. “People came to the galleries trying to get a deeper idea of the background to what’s going on now. We still want to provide that type of grounding and cultural view so that people see it’s not a one-dimensional world where everything is black or white, where everyone is with you or against you.”