On November first, 2011, a year before the Louvre re-opened its refurbished Islamic art department, New York City’s iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art offered the public its Islamic galleries as “Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South-Asia”. The 12,000 items in the Met’s Islamic collection cover a period of over 13 centuries and great geographical diversity – Middle East, Asia, Europe and North Africa. The mediums themselves are equally diverse, including works of calligraphy, metalwork, ceramics, painting and carpets. The visitor can witness both religious and secular artifacts, with an emphasis laid upon the cultural link between the different items, in spite of their historical or geographical diversity.
Dr. Navina Haidar serves as a Curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An Oxford-educated scholar who has worked in this institution for over a decade, Dr. Haidar oversees with three other curators one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic Art in the western world.
What is your academic background ? What was your Ph.D. subject ? What led you to focus on Islamic art ?
I did my D.Phil in Indian painting at the University of Oxford. My focus was on the Rajput school of Kishangarh for which I had to also study Mughal and Persian painting and work with Persian as well as Braj sources. So when I got a job in the Islamic department here at the Met I was not a typical Islamicist at all and had to learn a great deal on my own. The Met’s collection of Mughal painting lies in the holdings of the Islamic department and I suppose that is why I was somewhat qualified for the position. The Islamic art field is somewhat dependent on an argument-based approach – the argument being Islam – rather than a natural coalescence of period/style/region/media which usually defines other fields. Therefore in order to work within Islamic art one has to engage with its scholarly and sometimes ideological parameters quite a lot.
How long have you been curator of the Met ? What kind of responsibilities do you fulfill ? Has the refurbishing of the Islamic galleries occupied you full time or do you have other projects going on ?
I have been a curator here for about 14 years. My responsibilities include research, writing, care of the collections, acquisitions, exhibitions, communications and many other activities. I have been very busy with the Islamic galleries for almost 10 years ! But I am also working on an exhibition on the art of India’s Deccan sultans, and have curated other shows in the course of the gallery planning too.
How were the Met’s Islamic art collections displayed before ? Could you comment of the main differences this new museography conveys ?
Previously the galleries were more linear and emphasized the role of Islam, subsuming regional and other variations to some degree, in the interest of a civilizational theme. They were more didactic in nature and the groupings of objects emphasized the movement of motifs across different media. The new galleries are more diverse, emphasizing the regional variety and cultural individuality of the Arab, Turkic, Persian and Indic spheres. They offer several routes through the spaces, one tracing the course of Islamic civilization as the old galleries did, but others which allow the spaces to be experienced as individual ones. Physically the layout is different, more circular this time with natural light coming in through the inner ring.
The new galleries are outstandingly elegant and original, conveying a sort of intimacy. Such proximity with the objects creates a peculiar atmosphere – does it reflect the fact the Islamic art has been overlooked or misunderstood ? Why did you make these galleries different from a ‘traditional’ presentation, for instance by offering Islamic architecture within the display ?
Thank you for your kind words about the galleries. The aesthetic statements within the gallery reflect an important museological aim, that of creating a welcoming and seductive presentation where the visitors can feel really good and the art look amazing ! Of course everyone aims for that, but in our case we felt it was important to create a particularly warm atmosphere where a gentle embrace of Islam can be felt. That makes visitors more open and relaxed, without having to be “politically correct”. Now museums are becoming increasingly aware of the emotional responses of their audiences which are often more powerful than intellectual responses.
Did you arrive at the Met before or after 9/11 catastrophes ? Did you feel any repercussions on your work ? Was the re-naming of the gallery politically motivated, an attempt to deflect the emotions that the word Islam can evoke nowadays ?
I was already at the Met during the 911 events which were deeply shocking for everyone and caused our field to engage with politics much more than before. We found that in our planning of the new galleries we had to think in a far more creative and informed way, realizing the power and the meaning that our art collections had to educate people and bring them together. Having said that we also wanted to rise above the politics of the moment and use the heritage of 14 centuries of art to offer a longer perspective to our visitors as well as ourselves as planners. We took care to craft a didactic message around the galleries based partly on visitor surveys and other methods that we used to better understand our audiences and their world view. The naming of the gallery involved a complicated set of factors, but deflecting negative responses to the word Islam was not one of them. Primarily the naming of the galleries reflects the desire to introduce a strong sense of geography, especially since the word ‘Islam’ does not help the visitor locate the places we represent, which extend from Spain to India.
The presentation of the galleries emphasizes the diversity of the Islamic art, but also the interconnections between very different countries. Yet, these connections are not only within Islamic countries, but also between the East and the West - gallery of Egypt and Syria in the tenth to sixteenth centuries opens directly onto the gallery of nineteenth-century Orientalism. I believe this was done on purpose ?
Yes, we thought the two major themes to emphasize were those of cultural diversity and regional variation. Thus the Islamic world is presented not as a monolithic, essentialized block, but as a series of cultures, some with deep roots, brought together loosely, or closely, by Islam. Islam forms an important binding link between regions, but does not obliterate their past or their differences. Within the presentation we have woven in Europe, China, India in various ways where the art reveals these cultural connections.
What are your favorite pieces in the collection ?
I love the Persian drawings that are on display in a special area we created for them – their refinement is unimaginable. I also think the Indian textiles are profoundly moving – especially the beautifully drawn kalamkaris with a flowering tree in the center. I adore the Ottoman ceramics and the early Quran pages, especially one from the “nurses quran”, North African, 9th century.
Have you visited the new Islamic galleries of the Louvre ?
Yes, I was there for one of their openings. They offer a completely different approach and I think it is interesting for the public to be able to have two alternative ways to view the art of this fascinating period of human history.
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