“The Arab and Islamic community is significant enough that it needs to see itself in the museum,” said director Graham W.J. Beal. “Their collection had not been shown very prominently in the previous recent decades.”
Sunday’s opening came as several museums worldwide are broadening their collections. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is working on a suite of Islamic art galleries and The David Collection in Copenhagen is preparing to close its gallery for a reinstallation. The Louvre in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London also boast of major renovations to their collections. Egyptian officials plan to reopen Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art.
In Detroit, the gallery of about 170 works of art from the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Central Asia and India was several years in the making. It was to be part of the museum’s $158 million makeover completed in 2007 but required extra time and money.
The gallery, with its pointed arches, narrow columns and soft lighting, gives the collection a solemn yet inviting feel. Themes spanning 1,500 years include “Silk Road Inspirations,” whose works reveal the reach of the Islamic world and its role linking East and West; and “Sacred Writings of the Islamic World,” which includes Christian and Jewish manuscripts from the Islamic world.
The Detroit Institute of Arts houses a cornucopia of treasures, including one of the largest-known Ottoman mosque candlesticks from about 1500; an elevated giant cut-velvet summer floor covering made between 1650 and 1700 in Turkey, believed to be the largest of its kind; and a 15th-century leather-bound Koran, whose gold-flecked paper was given by China’s Ming emperor to Timur, one of the Mongol conquerors of the Middle East.
Heather Ecker, the museum’s Islamic art curator, said it was the “most spectacular and important piece in the collection,” one of four surviving manuscripts and the only one in the US.
The new gallery also seeks to “engage the public by telling the stories that the works of art can tell about themselves,” she said.
The gallery’s completion follows an ambitious, in-house restoration project. A cut-tile mosaic panel hanging above the Koran dating back to 15th century Iran was found in storage, and the mosque candlestick also was stored, covered in green wax and misdated to the 18th century. Both have been at the museum since the 1920s.
Ecker says that interest in Islamic art has risen since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Before then, it was largely kept on the sidelines.
“I think there’s a wish to understand,” she said, “and I think much more energy is being dedicated to understanding what the Islamic world is, its languages, cultures and people.”
Beal said that a new generation of museum directors is pushing to abandon geographical or cultural hierarchies and develop collections that “connect with people.”
Detroit’s effort has come with criticisms. Most disturbing to Beal was a letter from a member who asked why the museum was “promoting godless Islam.”
“Nobody has said, ‘Why are you showing Native American art?’ I’ve never had that question in my whole career,” he said.
Ecker said it’s impossible to separate the museum’s work from those outside tensions, but it can help dispel ignorance.
“When a museum has a collection as we do, we do feel a responsibility to provide not only a beautiful experience … but also an educational experience, because I think there’s a lot of ignorance,” she said. “Not only among non-Muslims, but a lot of Muslims don’t have a good understanding of the 1,500 years of Islamic history.”