Western countries have assumed themselves the guardians and narrators of the global human experience with little or no mention of the institution’s colonial roots.
I remember visiting the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London when I was 17 in 2003, shortly after the start of the American and British invasion of Iraq. My young mind was puzzled as to how Iraq, one of the oldest continuous civilizations in human history, could be bombarded as Americans and Europeans strolled through marble-floored museums fascinated by the obviously rich history of the country.
Over time, I realized that the answer lay in the very institution of the museum, symbol of imperial victory to this day.
When the British Museum opened in 1753, it had a collection of 71,000 objects. Over the next 250 years, its collection grew rapidly – thanks to colonization – and grew so large that the museum opened several sub-branches and now houses some eight million objects, including some of the most famous (and disputed) pieces in the world, from the Elgin Marbles of Greece to the Rosetta Stone of Egypt.
The Louvre opened in Paris in 1793 with 537 paintings, the majority of which were looted from the bourgeoisie and the Church as part of the First French Revolution. It then spread just as rapidly thanks to the military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte.
As other museums opened across Europe under the global expansion of colonialism, the means to obtain art, objects, artefacts stolen from archaeological digs, places of historical significance or religious and rare and priceless manuscripts – and even human remains – had been established, and a precedent was firmly established: take what you can, by any means necessary.
These collections served as evidence of European power and reach and captivated audiences by showcasing the mystery and strangeness of the “dark, uncivilized natives” found in distant lands. Books written in Arabic, Persian or Turkish – especially those relating to Islam – might have been studied for polemical purposes, but many sat gathering dust in libraries because few could translate them.
The British Museum today identifies itself as “unique in bringing together under one roof the cultures of the world, spanning continents and oceans”.
“No other museum is responsible for collections of the same depth and breadth, beauty and significance,” he says – a bold statement that overlooks the historical context in which it may have been. “bringing together” these cultures.
However, there has been a growing awareness in recent years around the problem of the low, or in some cases, the lack of provenance available for the art and objects that are in Western museums. Activists, some of whom have their roots in formerly colonized countries, have launched campaigns to demand the return of looted items, and in some cases these demands have reached the state level.
Islamic art in European museums
From the moment Napoleon set foot in Egypt in 1798, the Arab, and therefore Muslim, world occupied a central place in the European imagination. In trying to understand their own place in world history, Europeans began to build negative archetypes of Muslims. This phenomenon, later known as Orientalism, sparked several movements, and the collection and display of objects from the Muslim world became a key strategy in shaping and reshaping the Western imagination.
The army of social scientists, historians and surveyors who joined Napoleon on his mission came to, for the most part, the same conclusion: those nomads of the dark desert and those poor inhabitants found in the maze of cities ancients were not the same people as before. ruled the known world and pioneered the fields of science and astronomy – and they were to be treated accordingly.
Today, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library in London and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin house important collections of rare and precious objects from the vast Muslim world.
These collections – and the museums’ attempts to cram more than a thousand years of culture and art into a few rooms – provide a good insight into how these institutions still view and present Islam and the “Muslim world”. ” at large. While the exhibits on display are synonymous with sophistication and historical brilliance, there is no narrative that connects the past with the present. And it is not a hazard.
Muslims have always struggled to be fairly and accurately represented in the European imagination, but it’s not for lack of trying. In recent years, exhibitions funded – and partly narrated – by organizations in the Muslim world have tried to “correct” old historical misunderstandings.
In 2009, the Victoria and Albert Museum partnered with Art Jameel, a private Saudi philanthropic group, to launch the “Jameel Prize Competition”. In 2021, it awarded the top prize to Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem for his highly acclaimed work, “Paradise Has Many Gates”. According to the artist, the title of the piece refers to the different paths to Paradise described in the Koran. The artwork replicates the design of a traditional mosque, but is made of cage-like chicken wire used for border fences and detention centers.
“The material of the mosque induces anxiety, but it also makes its interior visible and open to the elements… The installation also seeks to demystify Islamic prayer for non-Muslims, tackling fear of the another at the heart of Islamophobia”, explains the artist on his website.
Does the artist attempt to explain the suffocating socio-religious norms of certain Muslim societies that force people into mosques? Or is he trying to “demystify” Islam in an attempt to “address the fear… at the heart of Islamophobia? If heaven has many doors, what do these doors look like and what do they lead to? Is heaven a cage? And are the followers of this faith prisoners?
With rising rates of anti-Muslim hatred in the UK and Europe, one would hope that these institutions would pay particular attention to preventing misunderstandings about Islam and stereotypes that portray its adherents as intolerant and dangerous.
In early 2020, the British Museum held an exhibition titled “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art.The exhibition, however, would have been better titled “Orientalist Art: How the West Seen the Orient.”
With careful narration, exhibiting the works of some of Europe’s most famous Orientalist artists – from Jean-Leon Gerome and Antoni Fabres to Ludwig Deutsch and Frederick Arthur Bridgman – could have been a learning experience aimed at re-educating the public and to correct pervasive lies. But that was not the case.
Instead, the exhibition was a bold demonstration and celebration of the European imagination, of an “Orient” that simply existed in the artists’ minds as something that could be shaped as they saw fit.
There was no commentary on the social and cultural damage resulting from the reductionist and often inaccurate fantasies. Nor did the exhibit point out that these famous pieces were almost always entirely contrived, based on racist and offensive stereotypes then in vogue in Europe.
Was this really how the British Museum intended to demonstrate the influence of Islam on Western art?
Wandering through this hodgepodge of outdated notions of Islam revived for a new generation has proven very frustrating. The exhibit could have included the work of William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and others of the arts and crafts movement – or even illustrations or oil paintings that depict rich textures, patterns and Arabic calligraphy found on silk and fabrics imported from the Orient. Curators might have focused on art and architecture – or glass lamps, carpets, silk and cloth embroidery, or illuminated manuscripts and bookbinding. Such a collection would have been at least a respectable start to honoring the influence that Islam has had on Western art over the past millennium.
The exhibition ran for four months and received almost universal praise, even from Muslims, for its boldness in ‘finally’ acknowledging the influence of Islam on the Western art world. I wonder if we’ve all seen entirely different exhibits.
It is rare that Muslims have the opportunity to exhibit and preserve their culture and history – and it is even rarer that these opportunities are offered by major European museums. The lack of vision and courage to be bold when there are now platforms for the preservation and exhibition of Muslim heritage and identity is indeed disappointing.
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Source: World TRT