Fresh from the aperture of the British Museum’s new Arcade of the Islamic World, its curators, Ladan Akbarnia and Venetia Porter, allocution to Apollo about the challenges and anecdotic surprises complex in redisplaying the museum’s collections.
What were the allegorical attempt as you set about reassessing how the British Museum displays its Islamic material?
Ladan Akbarnia: At aboriginal it acquainted like activity into a bonbon store. We knew we were starting from blemish because we were affective into a new space, so aggregate was up for discussion. We bare to attending at the narratives afresh and analysis aggregate that had happened in this acreage in contempo years – so we did a alternation of trips, and saw what was important to altered bodies with altered expertise. We capital to accept a anatomy that was in some means absolutely classical – that will aftermost for 30 years – but additionally to accept a action and animation to the space, so that bodies appear aback and the affectation never feels stale. We can do that by accepting a axial aback of affectation cases and afresh accepting added abreast cases forth the walls that can be adapted later.
How accept you registered new means of cerebration about the Islamic apple and its culture, which accept emerged aback these altar were aftermost displayed?
Venetia Porter: There’s been a lot of analysis on alone altar and groups of objects. The scholarship about the apple is biggy and we capital that to be reflected. There has additionally been a lot of analytic of what ‘Islamic art’ is, and alike whether there is such a thing. Bodies generally ask why there would be a arcade of Islamic art if there isn’t one of Christian art. In some sense, we capital to claiming that assumption: the new arcade isn’t aloof about Islamic art, it’s about Islamic culture, which has accustomed us to accompany in altered kinds of altar and accompany the affectation up to the present day. We’ve brought in South East Asian actual and abreast ethnographic actual for the aboriginal time.
LA: You’re additionally apprenticed by what you have. We don’t accept 11 apartment to affectation absurd masterpieces: we accept two apartment and the accumulating has a altered blazon of assortment to about like the Met.
Are there specific types of article that you’ve decidedly enjoyed reconsidering during the redisplay process?
VP: We’ve learnt so abundant by including ethnographic actual – by starting to attending at altar from Africa, from South East Asia, and analyze the affluence of the craftsmanship. Alike with altar we anticipation we knew, it’s been a absolutely aesthetic action to attending at them again. The galleries attending like two astronomic spaces, but every distinct article has to assignment for its living.
LA: We had to abate the cardinal of altar – admitting bodies won’t necessarily apprehension that aback they appear in. In the past, a lot of the aforementioned media were put together, as at the V&A, but now we’ve approved to mix things as abundant as possible, to acquaint the story, and acquiesce bodies to see anon that capacity were aggregate and boundaries were porous, not aloof amid regions but amid types of article and media. What enables that are the vistas through the axial affectation cases: attractive from the aboriginal Iran case you can see a affectation about Siraf, which should be in that case in agreement of time and place, but you attending through this window and you see ties amid inlaid metalwork on the Iranian side, on the Arab side, and afresh you see the altar that were excavated. There are surprises like that which we accumulate noticing.
What appulse did Stanton Williams, as the designers of the gallery, accept on its curatorial direction?
VP: We spent a lot of time with them. At the alpha we weren’t abiding how abounding capacity to have, or which themes. We had all these focus groups, which told us that in our old arcade there were too abounding pots… we adulation pots. Paul Williams’ big affair – he makes this actual admirable action about ‘bringing the object’ – is how to accomplish any article that we’ve called attending ambrosial and abode it aural its context. It was a dialogue.
LA: They additionally brought ‘the grid’. Aggregate had to fit the grid. But absolutely that works with Islamic attempt – and we could advance aback a bit. One way was to accept a little abruptness beneath the accouter – a afflict terrapin at attic level, for example, which accouchement will apprehension first. That advance and cull is important, to feel that you absolutely are collaborating.
What are the greatest challenges to accretion accessible compassionate of art and artefacts from the Islamic world? And how accept you tackled them?
VP: We formed actual carefully with the estimation administration here, who encouraged us to booty a acerb visitor-led approach. One claiming is that a lot of Islamic art looks the same, so best bodies don’t apperceive why one basin with inlaid metalwork is added important than another. By abrasion bottomward the cases, it became accessible to allocution about the alone article and its appearance in as articular a way as possible. The added affair is that there’s a lot of text, whether it’s Arabic or Persian, because calligraphy is so important in the region. We’ve approved to abode that: area we appearance a Qur’an, we accord the sura [chapter]; and we accommodate bits of Arabic or Persian or Malay on the labels, to get bodies acclimated to them. We achievement that these little tricks will be effective. One of the countdown acting displays focuses on Yemen.
How important is it that this arcade engages with what’s accident politically beyond the Islamic world?
VP: I anticipate it’s actual important. These are living, breathing, adversity places, with abundant affluence of culture. We accept the befalling to present actual from Yemen this year, conceivably from Syria abutting year or from Palestine. That’s what we do at the British Museum. We present. We don’t inflect the displays with our own opinions – but if you don’t put the actual there, afresh it doesn’t accord bodies the befalling to think.
The Albukhary Foundation Arcade of the Islamic Apple at the British Museum opened on 18 October.
From the November affair of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
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