A new gallery of Islamic arts at the British Museum broadly explores the cultural impact of Islam on everyday life through art and material objects from the many lands and societies the religion has affected across continents and centuries.
With innovative curatorial direction and displays, the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World brings together objects from the museum’s collection dating from the seventh century to the present day, and originating from Nigeria to Indonesia.
“The exhibition aims to stretch the boundaries of what we thought to be Islamic objects,” says Venetia Porter, the lead curator of the gallery, which opened in October 2018 after a major restoration that took over three years.
This is not an exhibition intended to discuss Islam as a religion, but rather as a phenomenon whose ideas and philosophy influenced the aesthetic designs of everyday objects produced in disparate places.
“We needed to tell a different story that’s much bigger than just the central Islamic lands,” says Porter, who’s also the museum’s assistant curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art. “We decided to focus on material culture to tell different stories of everyday rulers and people and to bring in contemporary objects also to tell the broader geographical story.”
The new exhibition explores how design and aesthetics formed, evolved and adapted as they were carried to different places through the movement of traders and diplomats along the extensive trade routes that crossed areas where Islam was present.
Porter describes the exhibition as “a non-hierarchal approach to objects,” thus eliminating the once ceramics-heavy focus of the museum’s previous Islamic gallery, which was last organized in 1989 and arranged by dynasty with a few standard Islamic art history themes set in chronological order.
Rather than placing a heavy emphasis on Egyptian, Indian and Persian objects, such as manuscripts and lusterware, the new exhibition highlights items from the periphery of where Islam was or is present today in a harmonious dialogue. Along with objects like a 20th-century Nigerian chessboard and Turkish shadow puppets, the exhibition also includes items such as playing cards from Iran dating from the 18th century, textiles and Turkish bath clogs inlaid with mother-of-pearl dating from the 19th century, and African musical instruments from the 20th century.