The world's most popular museum has taken another bold initiative to update its galleries and provide a new home for Europe's largest collection of Islamic Art.
PARIS - One of the biggest stories in the museum world this fall is the Louvre’s debut of a suite of new Islamic art galleries, a 10-year, $125 million project. The museum has a vast collection of material – 14,000 objects, with 3,500 more on loan from the Musée des Arts Decoratifs – and it’s installed in an architectural space with a dramatic, undulating “flying carpet” roof. For the Louvre, it demonstrates a major commitment to a type of art they had long underplayed or ignored.
This appears to be part of a major trend, since it was less than a year ago that the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled its beautifully renovated and re-installed Islamic galleries, spread over 15 rooms, though they are called “The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.” The project took more than eight years and has wowed visitors thus far, including me. I’m personally obsessed with this dagger, featuring a nephrite hilt that transfixes me every time I see it.
Dagger with Hilt in the Form of a Blue Bull (Nilgai). Metropolitan Museum. Gift of Alice Heeramaneck, in memory of Nasli Heeramaneck, 1985.
When the world’s top two museums are putting that kind of time and money into the same type of art, something is going on. So I headed up to the Met to talk to the chief curator of Islamic art, Sheila Canby, the woman behind the museum’s successful project.
“It’s coincidental that we opened within a year of each other,” she said. The Met closed its Islamic galleries in 2003 as part of the long-term re-installation – just when, as she admitted, they could have been most useful in the immediate years after 9/11, in terms of our understanding of religion and culture in the Middle East. “It was an unfortunate decade to be closed – what bad luck. But when we reopened, we knew we needed to recapture an audience, and we actually got a new audience.”
She’s referring to the fact that the Met’s research shows that the visitors to the Islamic galleries are actually younger than those in the rest of the museum. I find that fascinating – and evidence that interest in this art needs to be fed in other ways in the future.
As it happens, the appetite for fearsome daggers, lush carpets and intricate stonework – among many other treasures on display at the Louvre and Met – will indeed be sated in yet another long-term museum project, but this time in Germany.
Canby told me that the Museum for Islamic Art, on Berlin’s heavily visited Museum Island, is taking over even more space in the Pergamon Museum, as part of a planned Pergamon expansion. “They have a fantastic collection,” she said. “It will take eight or nine years, but that’s the next wave.”
Considering that bit of news, which I haven’t seen elsewhere, it appears that Islamic work will continue be a focal point at the world’s best comprehensive institutions. And maybe this puts pressure on those places that haven’t declared a big new plan in this area. It’s your move, State Hermitage Museum.