New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands: Behind-the-Scenes Curators' Commentary

In a behind-the-scenes tour of the amazing New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia, curators Navina Haidar and Sheila Canby consider the incredible diversity of cultures that flourished in these regions, the evocative power of the artworks they produced, and the networks of connections and influence that span the territory from Spain to Bangladesh, from the seventh to the nineteenth century. The Museum opened the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands to a tremendous success on November 1, 2011, where it now displays more than one thousand pieces from one of the world's preeminent collections of Islamic art. At a moment of particular need for cultural empathy, these incredible works create a bridge to a foreign world. As Haidar puts it, "the Islamic world is incredibly diverse. And it's not one world, but many. And it's not another world, but ours—because it's connected to the rest of the world, all through history, in different ways at different times."

Navina Najat Haidar, curator, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sheila Canby, Patti Cadby Birch Curator in Charge, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Learn more about the Museum's Department of Islamic Art.

Sheila Canby: The Department of Islamic Art has about twelve thousand objects in its collection. And we are showing about twelve hundred of these in our New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. There is a logic in the galleries—we've organized them essentially chronologically, but really regionally, because there is a great deal to be said about what is specific to the different regions.

Navina Haidar: The first, most exciting thing is to see the objects back on view, because we have great faith in our collection, and no matter what you do, how you arrange it, what you want to say about it, the objects speak for themselves.

As a curator, one of the most exciting things you can ever do is plan permanent galleries, because you get to work with the entirety of the collection, you get to rethink basic concepts and ideas and basic notions about the collection, and a chance to interpret it for a very wide audience, for a very long time. So it's a huge responsibility, as well as a huge challenge.

Our installation now—the fact that we've reinstalled these galleries in this particular way, that we have the floor plan that we have, that we have the arrangement that we have—really stresses two things: one is diversity, the other is interconnections. What we hope the visitor will take away from this experience of visiting nineteen thousand square feet of space, divided into fifteen galleries by region, is that the Islamic world is incredibly diverse. And it's not one world, but many. And it's not another world, but ours—because it's connected to the rest of the world, all through history, in different ways at different times. And this installation will be stressing those two points.

Sheila Canby: The vistas from one room to another have been thought out so carefully that one can see an object—and then look in the next room and realize that, actually, there is a relationship between these things. That's the kind of thing I hope our visitors will seem, and will make them curious, and make them want to, kind of, go a little deeper into the subject.

The Met's collection of Islamic art is, hands down, the most important collection of its kind in both North and South America, and it rivals the great encyclopedic collections in Europe. The importance of this collection for the Metropolitan Museum is that we cover territory from Spain to Bangladesh, we cover a time period from the seventh to the nineteenth century, and we connect with three continents.

Navina Haidar: Within the context of the Metropolitan Museum, there are many lateral connections you can make with other collections in the museum, through our collection, as well. It's very well-positioned here to further the Met's encyclopedic mission and nature, to represent works of art from every aspect of mankind's achievements.

Sheila Canby: The Moroccan Court, which has been made by craftsmen from Fez, is a great new innovation in these galleries, and has been a terrific experience, working with these artisans, who are so gifted, and who understand the vocabulary of their traditional building decoration so well. So I think that will be a favorite for the public.

Navina Haidar: One of the things that we thought was especially valuable to show right now is that despite all the changes and all the developments of our modern age, we still have something of the past with us. And we've found that particularly in the case of the Moroccan craft tradition. Because the government of Morocco and the people of Morocco have preserved their own crafts, we were able to actually get a group of craftsmen over here from Fez and create an exquisite little space that represents the living traditions of the Islamic world today—reviving, in some sense, styles and techniques that go back to the fifteenth century.

Sheila Canby: There are just so many wonderful things, big and small, that people will discover for themselves as they go through the galleries.

Navina Haidar: We have a new, expanded space, and a more circular space, than we did in the past. And that's encouraged us to think in a more circular way, and to think in terms of interconnections, and in terms of different points of view, and in terms of different sorts of relationships—that walls were porous, that influences pervaded and moved from one direction to the other. You'll see through the floor plan, and the visitor moving through the space will be able to understand some of these meaningful connections, because of the floor plan itself.

Sheila Canby: We have five hundred carpets—this is one of the greatest carpet collections in the world—we have a massive textile collection, and of course, paintings, ceramics, metalwork, glass— the whole array of types of objects that one would expect to find in an encyclopedic collection of Islamic art.

What I hope is that, regardless of what's going on in the world, that people will understand how many good things have been produced in these places over the centuries, and really, how deep the culture is. And what I want people to see is that not just kings and queens and important and wealthy people, but actually people of many levels of society, surrounded themselves with very beautiful objects, and they appreciated different types of objects and used them, and that this helps us understand and humanizes these cultures, in a way that I think is beneficial for everyone.

One way for people to understand how people lived is to actually look at a room where they did live. This would've been a reception room in a wealthy house in Damascus—probably used in the winter, because of its orientation—and it combines painted and gessoed wood with a fountain that's probably earlier, a stone fountain, and then has different types of objects like the ones that would've been displayed on the shelves in the room. The poetry praises the Prophet Mohammed, and the house, and the owner of the house. This room from Damascus, an early eighteenth-century room, was completely renovated by our conservators. It's a very elegant space, and so this does give an idea of how people lived.

Navina Haidar: I hope that this installation will help create a sense of embrace of the Islamic world, which will, to some extent, make the viewer feel comfortable in some aspect of this huge, diverse culture that we're showing, because it's not necessarily another culture. The Islamic world has been part and parcel of world development, world history, world art, from its very inception. And being able to provide insights through this installation I hope will encourage people to feel this is part of our world heritage, and a very, very important and rich part, exciting part, and especially meaningful today.

Sheila Canby: In our new galleries, we recognize not only a diversity of place, but also a diversity of language, and essentially, of ethnicity. And these things are expressed under the mantle of the Islamic faith, but we want to show people that if you go to Istanbul, you're likely to see something that's quite different than if you go to Isfahan or Delhi or Rabat. What we are trying to say in our new galleries, is that the world was much more complex than black and white, Muslim and Hindu; there was always this interaction of people, of artists, of styles, of the visual world.

We have a greater interest in the context in which art was produced, and not simply the chronology, and not simply that Islam was a unifying factor. We feel that it's more balanced to take the regions, to look at both what unifies them, through Islam, and then also what differentiates them, through their own local vernacular, essentially.

Navina Haidar: There is something to be said for sheer glamour. There is something to be said for, you know, seducing an audience—because this world has been alienated, in some sense, because of modern politics, because of the collections not having been on view for ten years, almost. And the fact that we can open with new objects, new objects of such power, and such beauty, and such interest, I think take us a long way with reintroducing ourselves to audiences, making people get excited about what they're seeing, and just people coming up to them and saying, "What is that? That's incredible."

We have a great collection that reflects the tastes and the patronage of the ruling nobility of India, from the Mughal age as well as the Deccan kingdoms. The range of types of works of art that you'll see as a visitor in this space is so enormous that I think that everyone will find something there that appeals to them, and gives a sense that this is a huge, rich, complex world, with an enormous number of facets, and artistically, extremely expressive and exciting, dynamic, interesting. And so I'm just, as a curator, excited to share all of this with a new generation of audiences.

Produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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