The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #26 - Metamorphosis of Islamic Art Exhibition Space: two permanent reinstallation case studies

Melissa Forstrom is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, and has also worked in America. Today, she discusses the metamorphosis of Islamic exhibition spaces - the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia at the New York Met, and the Arts in the Islamic World at the Louvre - two of the largest exhibition spaces of Islamic art in the Western world.

She beleives that there are two metamorphoses happening - that of the instituion, and that of the representation of the Islamic people in wider culture and the media. After 9/11, the number of reinstallations of Islamic art trebled. There have also been numerous travelling and temporary displays. Both of these show a massive interest in the Islamic world developing out of the events of the early 21st century.

These redisplays are often perceived as reacting against the negative image of the Islamic world presented in the wider media. However, they sometimes still perpetuate the Orientalist and Islamophobic tendencies which dominate these other forms of communication.

Forstrom investigates the textual panels in exhibitions as another form of media. They are often seen as unbiased, objective media - they certainly are not. As Helen Coxall wrote, language in the museum can lead to marginalisation. Forstrom uses Said's definition of Orientalism, which suggests the predomiance and rights of the West. She also uses the Runnymede Trust's definition of Islamophobia as an unfounded fear or hatred of Muslims, and suggests that the existence of Orientalism in the Western world paved the way for Islamophobia.

The Met's new galleries opened on November 21st 2011. There are 15 sub galleries, organised chronologically. The collection is mostly historical: the visitor separated from the art by time. Previously titled the Islamic Galleries, the original galleries were opened in 1975, with individual separate rooms. Now, they are represented as a united whole.

Though the visitor is separated from the objects by time, it was important to create a sense of place and connection: so the Met employed artists and architects to create senses of connection with the works. Entire Islamic rooms were created, and arches used in some of the doors.

Forstrom argues that the original galleries shows more clearly the diversity and differences of the Islamic world - the new galleries, she suggests, unify the Islamic world and put a gate around it. They even deny the Islamic origin of the objects in the new name of the galleries.

Moving on to the text. Forstrom shows how the European perspective dominates in the panels: the history of objects begins with their entrance to the West, and is a domineering, Orientalising perspective. It does not speak to a multiculural audience.

The Arts of Islam wing of the Louvre opened in September 2012. 11 years in the making, it was the first addition to the museum since the Pyramid. It was supported by powerful donors from all over the Islamic world. It is a free and separate structure, connected to the rest of the Louvre by a tunnel. Like the Met's collection, it is also historical. It houses double the amount of objects than the Met. The first floor deals with the history from 632 to 1000, and is titled Foundation to Empire. On the floors below, the 11th century onwards is dealt with.

Previously, the collections had been displayed in the basement, displayed in geographical areas: like that of the Met. Again, Forstrom beleives that the original displays showcase Islamic cultural diversity better. At the Arts of Islam wing, there is no sense of Islamic place. The wing is also both inside and outside the Louvre, like the French Muslim population itself.

Again, its text arguably represents some Orientalist tendencies. Again, the Western perspective is dominant: but, Forstrom argues, why? Who is this information important to? The European people, of course, which is not inclusive and has the ability to marginalise the non-European audience.

On the surface, these re-installations appear to be very different. But they share some commonalities. Orientalism and Islamaphobia are shockingly statistically prevalent, as Forstrom found in her analysis of the texts - 14 out of 14 articles in the Met, and 13 out of 17 articles in the Louvre contained such traits. 

Forstrom notes that she cannot ascribe intentionality, and that she is obviously biased as a person looking for this phenomenon. It would be interesting to see some of the responses from the Islamic community: research, I believe, has to, to some extent, enact the change it wishes to see in the world.

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