Source: The National
By Venetia Porter
The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World brings a rich culture to life through everyday objects
started working at the British Museum in London nearly 30 years ago, just in time to help with the opening of the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art. It was the first time the museum had opened a substantial gallery devoted to the art of the Islamic world. Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, attended its inauguration. It was a grand, very exciting affair and I was lucky to be a part of it.
Located on the north side of the building, the gallery was beautiful but small and focused solely on Islamic art. We had more objects that we wanted to show and more stories to tell so in 2014, we started thinking about expanding the gallery. When the Albukhary Foundation in Malaysia generously agreed to support a move out of the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art and fund a refurbishment of two rooms on the first floor of the museum, we couldn’t believe our luck.
These rooms had once housed medieval European collections but had been closed for some time. When they were cleared, it became obvious there was a lot of work to do. The museum embarked on a massive renovation, working first with HOK architects, who shored up the structure of the building, and then with architects and exhibition designers Stanton Williams. The abandoned rooms were transformed into something absolutely magnificent; the original mouldings and the beautiful high ceilings were restored, providing an immaculate shell for what we had planned for the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, which opened to the public last month.
Back in 2014, it was left to me and the other five curators to figure out what objects from the British Museum’s collection to display and then, working with the designers, exactly how to put them on show. That was not an easy task.
We conducted a lot of focus groups to find out what our audience wanted and, as I learned, it’s a science. The overriding message was that the old gallery concentrated too much on art. The focus groups were saying: “Tell us more about the people.”
We wanted to create a gallery that brought to life the culture of the Islamic world, not just through art but everyday objects as well. There is a perception that the Islamic world is the Middle East but it is important to realise it is not just one region. It is a series of interconnected nations and continents, starting from the furthest point west in Nigeria, Africa, and stretching right across to south-east Asia. The thing that ties these regions together is the fact that Islam is the predominant religion but we also wanted to show there were people of other faiths inhabiting these regions: Christians, Jews, Hindus and Zoroastrians, among others. The arts also reflect massive upheavals across the Islamic world, such as the invasions of the Mongols from China or the Crusaders from Europe. We tried to give a nuanced story.
Bur rather than a mishmash, there is a strong structure. We present history complemented by a series of themes, such as writing and global trade. I like to think of it as a giant jigsaw puzzle. It is an attempt to tell lots of different stories, but we always start with the object. Rather than forcing a story on an object, we allow the object to tell the story.