LONDON - Not often are early announcements greeted with such hot anticipation. In the case of the British Museum’s press launch of the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World scheduled for 2018, the audience could be forgiven for their undue excitement about an event three years hence – it is after all, a true milestone for a major UK institution. Audiences to the British Museum were always conscious of a lack of dedicated space for the arts of the Islamic world. Coherent and well-curated exhibitions often need ample space to reflect a theme, to display in proximity works that inform each other historically or otherwise. As of 2018, this will be possible.
Unique amongst major museums, the British Museum’s collections are able to represent the diversity of cultures of the Middle East, Turkey, Central Asia and South and South East Asia from the advent of Islam to the present day. The collections encompass the art and material culture of the Islamic world from Africa to China, including archaeology, decorative arts, the arts of the book, Middle Eastern and Central Asian ethnography and textiles, and modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art.
The space for the new gallery will be created by joining two beautiful galleries, Rooms 42-45 on the first floor – areas which are currently closed to the public. The first of the two spaces will look at the region from the beginning of Islam to about 1500, highlighting the arts of the great medieval dynasties. Visitors will see the impact of Islamic art on Western art with objects such as Mamluk mosque lamps and metalwork, which were sources of inspiration for nineteenth century European artists and designers. In the second gallery, the visitor will encounter objects that represent the pinnacle of creativity under the three major dynasties that dominated the Islamic world from the 16th century: the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Magnificent objects were produced during these eras and which now constitute the glories of the BM collection.
While the opening may seem a long way off, closer to hand we have been informed that the 2012 Hajj exhibition at the Museum has been awarded the ISESCO-OCIS Prize for Educators for promoting dialogue and understanding between peoples and cultures. In a fraught world, what can be more inspiring than this kind of partnership and outreach?