“It is a very different approach to Islamic art,” says Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum. “We are looking at the work created in the epochs and regions dominated by Islam, as well as the interaction with the Jewish, Christian and Hindu communities that were part of the Islamic realm. And we also go back into antiquity, before the seventh century [when the Prophet Muhammad lived and died], to span a history of 1,500 years.”
The British Museum has shown Islamic works since it opened in 1753. An astrolabe from the Safavid court at Isfahan (in modern day Iran) was among Sir Hans Sloane’s founding gifts to the institution. It was just one of more than 70,000 works of art, ethnography and scientific specimens amassed by the remarkable 18th-century royal physician and left to King George II for the nation in his will. In the 250 years since, the Islamic collection has grown, and today there are around 100,000 objects from the Islamic world across the museum’s collections; from artistic masterpieces to textiles and crockery. Collecting contemporary works on paper by Middle Eastern artists is the latest development.
But the department of the Middle East has had to compete for space in a crowded museum. While pre-Islamic showstoppers – magnificent sculptures from ancient Egypt and Assyria – take centre stage, the arts of the Islamic world were tucked in the back of the museum. Even that was a big improvement. Before 1989, the display was a “tiny corner” of what is now the the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia, says Venetia Porter, one of the department’s assistant keepers.
To make the new galleries, two rooms upstairs in the White Wing have been stripped out; false ceilings dismantled, dingy coverings removed. The result is a revelation. Now they are magnificent, top-lit galleries with 1880s features, first conceived to match the Greek Revival style of the original museum building, designed by Robert Smirke 60 years before.
The story the galleries tell is also new. They used to be chronological and dynastic, focusing on the highest examples of court art. But in an age dominated by war, terrorism, Islamophobia and fundamentalism, that would no longer do. The new displays look at the co-existence of faiths, international trade, the importance of Islam in China and how ideas, motifs and technologies were shared. There will be space for changing exhibitions, including what Porter calls “often hard-hitting political” contemporary Middle Eastern work. “We are looking at Islam as a globalising phenomenon,” Fischer says.
The galleries would not have been possible without the Malaysia-based Albukhary Foundation, which donated “several millions of pounds” to the project. Its input has been more than financial. In a first for the British Museum, the Albukhary Foundation-funded Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia will mount exhibitions within the space.
It is probable that outside Islamic art and business circles, few in London know the name Albukhary. In Malaysia, Syed Mokhtar Albukhary is one the region’s wealthiest – albeit private – businessmen. He heads a family foundation which his brother, Syed Mohamad, estimates has given almost $1 billion to causes, ranging from disaster relief to education. Syed Mohamad is the director of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, a successful entrepreneur- turned-art expert who was the driving force behind the building of the museum.
The prompt, Syed Mohamad says, was an approach by a Parisian dealer in 1990. He had an important coin collection to sell, possibly to a nation. “I didn’t know anything about Islamic art,” he says, but he decided to see if he could help the dealer. An appointment to convince the then (and now) Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to purchase proved fruitless. What was the point of buying things, Syed Mohamad was told, if there was no museum to put them in? Undeterred, a spark was lit, and Syed Mohamad sought the support of his brother. Eight years later, the pair were at the £75-million museum’s inauguration.
Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s head of Middle Eastern and Indian art, describes the museum as a great achievement, “a glorious, splendid building with a fine collection” that presents Islamic art “as a living tradition”. Gibbs is an Islamic expert and a former lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In 1997, he catalogued the British Museum’s world-class Godman Collection of Iznik ceramics, and it is a little of that collection which eventually made the link between Kuala Lumpur’s new museum and London.
In 2004, shortly after opening, the British Museum lent a large exhibition about Arabic script to the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. When the then director Neil MacGregor came to the exhibition opening, he and Syed Mohamad hit it off. “While we were building the museum, there was an economic crisis in Malaysia,” Syed Mohamad says, “and [the late] Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani was also in the market, buying masterpieces for Qatar. It was difficult for us to buy things, so we had to start with what we had.” The museum’s Iznik collection “was then not rich”, he adds. Syed Mohamad and MacGregor met again to discuss collaboration. “Neil said, we have some of the best [Iznik objects] in the world; better show it here than leave it in our storerooms,” says Syed Mohamad. The loan was for eight years, generously without a fee. “That’s my policy on museums: art should be shared,” Syed Mohamad says.
More than a decade later, the foundation was in a position to repay the favour. Museums like the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were creating updated Islamic galleries and the Albukhary Foundation had made a call for museum proposals. “Among them was the British Museum. And our trustees said, ‘When we were down, when we didn’t have a collection, the British Museum lent to us.’ It’s a positive circle,” Syed Mohamad says.
Like the British Museum, Syed Mohamad wants to promote a wider understanding of the arts of Islam. “Islamic art was made by Muslims, by Christian, by Jewish craftsmen – they learned from each other and the work improved.” He notes that Malaysia is “truly multicultural”, a country of native Malays, Indians, Chinese and Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists among many others. “That’s what we are trying to do,” he says. “We want to show that the arts of Islam are for everyone.”
Jane Morris is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper
The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World opens at the British Museum on 18 October
The Making of The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World will be published in November 2018 by the British Museum
The Islamic World: A History in Objects by Ladan Akbarnia, Venetia Porter, Fahmida Suleman, William Greenwood, Zeina Klink-Hoppe and Amandine Mérat will be published in October 2018 (Thames and Hudson)