Building a 14th-century courtyard in 21st-century New York City

Silk, gold and velvet Floral Tent Panel from the Reign of Shah Jahan (1628-58). Created about 1635 in India. Metropolitan Museum of Art accession number 1981.321. On display in Gallery 464.

As readers who are interested in the international art scene or are supporters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York know, last November marked an important milestone in the museum’s history: the Department of Islamic Art reopened its 15 galleries to the public after a major $50 million overhaul.  The purpose of the project was to rethink the way the objects are displayed – the context in which they are presented, the curatorial order that is applied to them, and the message the museum wants to send about the history of Islamic art and its relationship to Western art.  It had been many years since such extensive work was undertaken at the museum, and the project was widely debated by scholars and patrons, and was closely watched by the governments of Islamic countries.  The curators knew that when the galleries re-opened their doors on November 1, 2011, visitors would be flocking to the rooms not only to admire 1500 years of breathtaking art, but also to examine and critique how a Western cultural institution had chosen to interpret and display the material culture of  the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.  Though not as obvious as the words of politicians or the actions of military leaders, the handling of these reworked galleries would be perceived by some as a pronouncement on the relationship between Islamic culture and the West.

Something that has been less discussed is the actual physical restructuring of the gallery space.  As part of the re-design, the curators chose to construct a historically accurate replica of a Maghrebi-Andalusian-style medieval courtyard.  In order to do so, they hired a crew of Moroccan artisans whose families have been creating traditional architecture for generations.  Nine months ago, the New York Times ran an excellent piece on the project.  Yes, I realize that I am far behind in sharing this but I am, after all, an archaeologist – it’s my job to “dig up” history, in this case fairly recent history!  This article is really worth a read, not only because it gives fascinating detail on the centuries-old techniques for creating the glowing, almost overwhelmingly intricate decoration that characterizes much medieval Islamic architecture, but also because it shines a light on the cultural understanding (as well as occasional misunderstanding) that was necessary to produce the finished galleries.  The work of the Moroccan artisans and their relationships with the curators also raised political and gender issues, both of which played a role in the dealings between the skilled craftsmen of Arabesque (the Moroccan company that produced the work) and the curatorial staff of the Met.

I’d be very pleased to read comments from any readers who have had the opportunity to visit the new galleries: what were your first impressions?

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