How Did Islamic Artefacts End up in Western Museums?

Published June 27th, 2022 - 05:44 GMT
The British Museum
The British Museum in London (AFP)

Western countries have assumed themselves the custodians and narrators of the global human experience with little to no mention of the colonial roots of the institution.

I remember visiting the Jameel Gallery in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as a 17-year-old in 2003, soon after the start of the US and UK invasion of Iraq. My young mind was puzzled as to how Iraq, one of the oldest continuous civilisations in human history, could be bombed while Americans and Europeans wandered around marble-floored museums fascinated by the country’s clearly rich history. 

Over time, I came to understand that the answer lies in the very institution of the museum, a continued symbol of imperial victory to this day.

When the British Museum opened in 1753, it had a collection of 71,000 items. Over the next 250 years, its collection expanded rapidly — thanks to colonisation — and grew so large that the museum opened several sub-branches, and now houses some eight million objects, including some of the world’s most famous (and disputed) pieces, 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 also expanded rapidly thanks to the military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

As other museums opened across Europe under the global expansion of colonialism, the means of obtaining art, objects, artefacts stolen from archaeological excavations, places of historical, or religious significance, and rare and invaluable manuscripts — and even human remains — had been established, and a precedent was firmly set: take what you can, by any means necessary. 

These collections served as evidence of European power and reach and captivated audiences by showcasing the mysteriousness and strangeness of the “dark and uncivilised natives” found in distant lands. Books written in Arabic, Persian or Turkish — especially those relating to Islam — might have been studied for the purposes of polemics, but many sat gathering dust in libraries as few could translate them.

The British Museum today identifies itself as being “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,” it says — a bold statement that neglects the historical context in which it was able to ‘gather’ these cultures.

However, there is growing awareness in recent years around the problem of weak, or in some cases, no provenance available for art and objects that sit in Western museums. Activists, some who trace their roots to once-colonised countries, have initiated campaigns to seek the return of looted artefacts, and in some cases, these demands have reached a state level

Islamic art in European museums

From the moment Napoleon set foot in Egypt in 1798, the Arab, and thus Muslim, world took centre stage in the European imagination. In trying to understand their own place in the history of the world, the Europeans began to construct negative archetypes of the Muslims. This phenomenon, which later came to be known as Orientalism, set in motion several movements, and the collecting and exhibiting of objects from the Muslim world became a key strategy in the shaping and re-shaping of the Western imagination.

The army of social scientists, historians and surveyors that joined Napoleon on his mission came, for the most part, to the same conclusion: these dark desert nomads and poverty-stricken dwellers found in the mazes of ancient cities were not the same people that once ruled the known world and pioneered the fields of science and astronomy — and they were to be treated accordingly. 

Today, the Louvre, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library in London, and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin house significant collections of rare and valuable objects collected from across the vast Muslim world. 

These collections — and the museums’ attempts to consolidate over a thousand years of culture and art in a few rooms — provide great insight into how these institutions still view and present Islam and the wider ‘Muslim world.’ Whereas the objects on display signify sophistication and historical brilliance, there is no narrative that connects the past with the present. And this is no coincidence.

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 in part, narrated — by organisations from within the Muslim world have attempted to ‘correct’ old historical misunderstandings.

In 2009, the Victoria and Albert Museum partnered with Art Jameel, a private Saudi philanthropy group, to launch ‘The Jameel Prize competition.’ In 2021, it awarded first prize to Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem for his widely-praised piece, ‘Paradise Has Many Gates.’ According to the artist, the title of the piece refers to the different paths to Paradise described in the Quran. The artwork replicates the design of a traditional mosque, but is made of the cage-like chicken wire used for border fences and detention centres.

“The mosque’s material provokes anxiety, but it also renders its interior visible and open to the elements… The installation also seeks to demystify Islamic prayer for non-Muslims, tackling the fear of the other at the heart of Islamophobia,” the artist says on his website.

Is the artist attempting to explain the suffocating socio-religious norms of some Muslim socities that force people into mosques? Or is he trying to ‘demystify’ Islam in an attempt at ‘tackling the fear … at the heart of Islamphophobia?’ If paradise has many gates, what do these gates look like and what do they lead to? Is paradise a cage? And are the adherents to this faith prisoners? 

With rising rates of anti-Muslim hatred in the UK and Europe, one would hope that such institutions would pay special attention to prevent 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 off being called, ‘Orientalist art: How the West viewed the East.’ 

With careful narration, the display of the works of some of the most famous orientalist artists in Europe — from Jean-Leon Gerome and Antoni Fabres to Ludwig Deutsch and Frederick Arthur Bridgman — could have been a learning experience aimed at re-educating audiences and correcting pervasive falsehoods. But this was not the case. 

Instead, the exhibition was an audacious display and celebration of the European imagination, of an ‘East’ that merely existed in the artists’ minds as something that could be moulded as they saw fit.

There was no commentary on the social and cultural damage that resulted from the reductionist, and often inaccurate fantasies. The exhibition also failed to highlight that these celebrated pieces were almost always entirely contrived, based on racist and offensive stereotypes that were du jour in Europe at that time.

Was this really how the British Museum intended to demonstrate Islam’s influence on Western art? 

Walking around this mishmash of outdated notions of Islam revived for a new generation proved very frustrating. The exhibition could have included the work of William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and others from the arts and crafts movement — or even illustrations or oil paintings that depict rich textures, patterns, and Arabic calligraphy found on silk and cloth imported from the East. The curators could have focused on art and architecture — or glass lamps, carpets, silk and fabric embroidery, or illuminated manuscripts and binding. Such a collection would have been at least a respectable start in honouring the influence 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’ recognising Islam’s influence on the world of Western art. It makes me wonder if we all saw entirely different exhibitions.

It is rare that Muslims are given an opportunity to exhibit and curate their culture and history — and it’s even rarer for these opportunities to be provided by major European museums. The lack of vision and courage to be bold when there are now platforms for the curation and exhibition of Muslim heritage and identity is disappointing indeed. 

Zirrar Ali is a writer and photographer based in London, who has spent the past decade travelling the east from North Africa, Egypt, and Hejaz to the lands of Khorasan. His work reflects a vision of cultural and identity revivalism, where the might and beauty of Islam can be re-discovered and shared. He is the author of 'Enwrap', and is currently working on a modern English translation of poetry by the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.


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