The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Two Lovers, 1629-30/ A.H. 1039;
Safavid period (1501-1722)
Attributed to Iran
an interesting text reBlogged from FOR THE LOVE OF GABBING 2/25/06
[emphasis + links courtesy of NEWSgrist]:
Islamic Art panel, CAA 2006
Rethinking the Public Presentation of Islamic Art: New Installations and Reinstallations of Museum Collections in the 21st Century brought curators from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Jameel Gallery, Victoria and Albert, London to discuss the relationship between current Western perceptions of Islam and the role of museums in mediating that perception. Since September 2001, several major museums in the US and UK have shut down their Islamic galleries for renovations. Whereas in other areas, exhibition design had long evolved from a decorative arrangement of objects to propounding a conceptual vision, Islamic art remained on the outside of such a discursive framework. Because of the events of the last five years, Islam has become a buzz word in public consciousness and among other places, museums too, are littered with visitors actively seeking out Islamic collections. In resopnse to this new public interest, museums have succumbed to the need of reinstalling their Islamic collections, in what they consider more informative and interactive ways.
Curatorial outlook contrasts that of the arthistorian in many ways. For instance, Aimée Froom, spoke about the decision to include in the new space at the Brooklyn Museum, a recreational area called the Paradise Garden. This garden is to be designed like the chahar-bagh - qaudripartite garden - often seen in Safavid, Ottoman and Mughal miniatures. In the paintings, the garden plot is divided into four by a central square fountain and water chutes emerging from the midpoint of each its sides. The problem is that the rendition of the chahar-bagh as a vision of the Islamic Paradise was but one interpretation by scholars of the early twentieth century to whom the culture of the land was necessarily derived from its religion. So to make sense of an unfamiliar visual vocabulary they looked to the Qur'an as their source and projected its descriptions of paradise on to the chahar-bagh: so the four chutes of water evoked the "rivers of milk and honey", and the fact that the gardens were in the Emperor's private quarters and hence frequented by the women of household readily lent itself to the mention of houris. In the realm of the arthistorian this interpretation has been contested extensively and is acknowledged as just one of the several possible reasons for the particular garden design, in fact the harshest critiques have deemed the approach essentialist, at best. To the curator, the creation of a chahar-bagh space will make that element of an Islamic milieu relatable to the western audience. To the art historian, the simulation of a chahar-bagh is not as problematic as is calling that space a Paradise garden; the positivist label eliminates the discursive potential for the viewer. The result of a well-intended concerted effort to familiarize the western audience with a foreign culture ends up misinforming the viewer some more.
Curators think in demographics. Timothy Stanley, of the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria and Albert, found that the collection he is in charge of, is from an Islamic region different from where his transnational muslim audience traces its ethnic roots. According to Stanley, these Islamic objects can not be marketed to the contemporary Southasian populace of the Sheffield area as their heritage. In the curatorial mindset, the breadth of Islamic culture is defined by the extent of the collection at hand. In the case of the V & A collection, the glory of Islamic culture is thus frozen in the years between the tenth and the sixteenth centuries, bound to the Meditteranean and hence offers nothing to the twenty-first century Southasian visitor. As an arthistorian, it is easy to see that Stanley's anticipated visitor response is constrained by modernist delineations of geo-political boundaries. Identification trends among Southasians in Britain are blantantly manifested in their expressed, vociferous support of the oppressed Muslim world -- clearly, there is a religiously defined identity which underscores national identity. To limit cultural pride in cartographic segments is to overlook the multifaceted nature of an audience's sense of self.
Lastly, Linda Komaroff from LACMA, recounted the dilemma of the western curator in presenting the collection in an objective light in the professional domain and being embittered by the civilization in the personal sphere. Whereas the curator's narcissistic claim to unbiased scientific credence is never admitted, the postmodern arthistorian clarifies authorial inclination in the initial thesis statement. Subjectivity pervades every dimension of scholarship: unlike popular opinion it does not come from eccentricity but rather from personal politics.
Moral of the session: arthistorians have no bearing on the applications of arthistory in the real world - that is curatorial territory. For the unsuspecting visitor, the museum is anything but a safe space.