By Nikola Krastev, Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL
NEW YORK -- New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has unveiled its new wing of Islamic works in a major effort to increase Americans' understanding of Islamic culture. The new wing, which opened on November 1, includes 15 galleries displaying historic art from across the Islamic world. This includes the art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia.
But the exhibits go well beyond merely displaying priceless objects that dazzle visitors with their beauty and craftsmanship. They also trace the course of Islamic civilization over 13 centuries to show how much it and its contributions are part of the world's shared cultural heritage.
The museum says its goal is to dramatically widen Americans' perspective on Islamic culture. The opening of the new galleries comes 10 years after 9/11 defined many Americans' impressions of the Muslim world in a negative way.
Now, the Met -- as the museum is affectionately known -- hopes to give people a deeper, objective understanding of Muslim culture and history.
"There is great potential for changing people's opinions and the reason is that we provide a lot of information that is historical, so people have an opportunity to come to a neutral space where there is no political point of view," says Sheila Canby, the curator in charge of the Museum's Department of Islamic Art. "We are trying simply to give context to the objects that we have on view."
Overturning Prejudice With Beauty
Nonetheless, Canby maintains that information is only part of the process. According to her, being exposed to the creative power and beauty of another world is an experience that essentially overturns prejudices and stereotypes.
Sheila Canby, the curator in charge of the Department of Islamic Art
"[What is] really more powerful is the fact that so many of these objects are so beautiful and it is very disarming to look at things that are really, really beautiful," she says. "You kind of forget ugliness and pain and many other things for a moment if you are experiencing something emotional by looking at something that is remarkable."
The galleries comprise more than 12,000 works of art drawn from across a world that, at its height, extended from Spain and Morocco in the west to India and the Far East.
The objects of art range from the finest examples of classical Islamic manuscripts to glass objects and rare carpets.
Most of these artifacts are drawn from the Met's previous stores of Islamic art, which have always been among the finest in the world. But now they are presented in entirely new galleries constructed over an eight-year period of renovation, during which the Islamic collection was closed to the public.
Canby says one of the highlights is a 14th-century mihrab from Isfahan decorated with a mosaic of tiny tiles. The mirhab, or prayer niche, which indicates the direction of Mecca to those who pray in a mosque, is an exquisite example of how artistic inspirations moved around the Islamic world.
"One of our largest architectural fragments, the mihrab from Isfahan, is dated 1354 and is made of mosaic faience. People in Central Asia will be familiar with this," Canby says, "particularly in Uzbekistan where the Timurid monuments have this technique. But [the mosaic technique] was very labor intensive, very expensive, and by the 15th century it started to die out and be replaced by tile work."
Other rarities include pages from a copy of the "Shahnama" or "Book of Kings," created for Shah Tahmasp (1514-1576) of Persia, and royal miniatures from the courts of the Arab world, the Ottomans, Persia, and Mughal India.
Showcasing Muslim Opulence
There are also sumptuous carpets. According to Canby, these are often particularly striking for visitors because they directly convey the richness and comfort of Islamic court life.
"[On display is an] early 16th-century carpet made in Cairo around the time of the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, which was in 1517," she says. "It is shimmering. [The] beautiful color and the texture of the carpet, which looks so soft and so inviting, makes one realize how opulent these buildings would have been that had these carpets on the floor."
But the museum also tries to convey that level of opulence in other ways. One of the exhibits is the Damascus Room, the interior of a reception room from an Ottoman house built in Syria in 1707.
It is widely considered to be one of the finest remaining examples of an Ottoman interior left in the world today.
The effect on visitors is what one might expect. Few can encounter such beauty without being moved and impressed.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of sumptuous carpets on display.
"Why it's striking is how much more refined this is than early medieval European art," says Gordon Dinzmar, a 58-year-old executive at a New York insurance company. "In a lot of [the displays], particularly the carpets, the [exhibit notes] will talk about [European Renaissance] paintings where people are [portrayed] standing on the carpets, and obviously these were luxury goods to Europeans at the time."
In Renaissance Europe, it was common for wealthy nobility and merchants to pose for their portraits with some of the most valuable objects they owned, to show their wealth and power.
Very often, those objects included a carpet, placed on the floor or draped across a table. Today, the paintings are also evidence of how much Europeans at the time esteemed luxury goods from the Orient and how interconnected the East and West have always been.
A Product Of Necessity, Opportunity
One visitor who was impressed by the exhibit is Frank Johnson, a 69-year-old neurosurgeon from the U.S. Midwest.
"I haven't seen anything quite this large before," he says. "I've been in the Metropolitan Museum and in a number of other large museums around the world and seen examples of Islamic art. I've not seen anything as extensive as this. This is a brilliant display."
The new wing is the product of both necessity and opportunity.
The Met had to close it previous galleries of Islamic art in 2003 when work began on renovating the Greek and Roman galleries on the floor below.
The Department of Islamic Art decided to take advantage of the inconvenience by planning a major renovation of its own in order to display its artifacts in a new and more exciting way.
The new galleries received substantial support from private donors, including Patti Cadby Birch, a longtime admirer of Islamic art who also kept a house in Morocco until her death in 2007.
Other major donors are the Vehbi Koc Foundation of Turkey; New York business family and art patrons Bijan and Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani; and the Iranian-American community.
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