Interview with Ladan Akbarnia

Curator, South Asian and Islamic Art The San Diego Museum of Art

This interview has been taken from the Converging Paths 2021 series, organised by Asia House and the Barakat Trust.

(Question by Mahroo) I am an architectural and art historian, currently working on a paper which questions the ‘normative’ ways through which we might think about Islamic art. The paper is an extension of my doctorate in which I invited to an interdisciplinary reading of the architecture of the Safavid Isfahan and the poetry of the period. I proposed a method of using the structures of one discipline to open doors to a new understanding of the other discipline. Given this, I am interested to go further with this discussion to the mechanisms through which the Islamic art museums work. My question is in terms of the normative systems of display in the Islamic art museums. Indeed, one method is the categorisation of the artefacts via their discipline (so, simply, in a room, you can only find metalware or you can only find textiles or you can only find ceramics…). The other method categorises the objects according to the dynasty or geography (but here again, there’s a sense of avoiding to mix objects from different artistic disciplines. Is that right?). What are the other methods of display of Islamic art that I missed? Do we have any known method of display in which we can see objects from dramatically different disciplines in one place so a viewer can get a glimpse of all different varieties of objects in one take?  and which method is the most popular and used method in the museological system of the Islamic art? What sources do you suggest for a comprehensive study (and history) of different methods of display in Islamic art museums? 

Dear Mahroo. Thank you for sharing some of the issues you address in your own research and for your questions regarding the methodologies of displaying Islamic art and material culture in museums. You refer to ‘normative’ methods used, such as presenting works by medium, dynasty, or geography. Historically, installations and exhibitions of Islamic material have been organised primarily in the ways you describe, or — if more specific —  by a special topic such as a literary text or a religious focus (ie, Islam, the Qur’an, ‘Islamic ornament’). A popular go-to for installations of permanent collections was historically to arrange by medium (ie, ceramics, metalwork, arts of the book) or dynastic period (ie, Mamluks, Safavids, Ottomans, Mughals). Some places have also organised material by themes, and still others by a combination of some or all of these.

I would say the main factors behind how such collections and objects are organised are the content of the collections themselves (the scope of the material in terms of time/place of production, materials and techniques, and subject matter) and the theoretical or methodological approaches used by curators and/or institutions to interpret, display, and engage them. While there are Islamic collections in more than one national museum in London, for example, each presents its collections under a different mission. While the Victoria and Albert Museum was conceived as a museum of art and design meant to inspire ‘designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science,’ the British Museum is considered a museum of world history; the displays of the Islamic collections at these museums is thus meant to reflect the purpose of each institution. At the British Museum, my previous place of work, we worked as a curatorial team to prepare the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, a two-room gallery in which the vast Islamic collections of the museum were presented within a narrative framework that emphasised the complex and multi-layered nature of the Islamic world (or worlds) through objects and their connections to people. While the ‘spine’ of large cases populating the central length of both rooms follows a chronological hierarchy with geographical divisions, thematic cases line the walls to present more focussed narratives only touched upon in the centre displays (ie, collection history, belief and practice, figuration, the sciences, games, archaeological excavations, textiles, lustre technology, cross-cultural trade networks and transmissions, oral traditions, and more). In addition, there are areas dedicated to the display of light-sensitive works requiring rotation to allow for long-term preservation, such as the arts of the book, contemporary works on paper, and textiles from the ethnographic collections. Another space is reserved for special exhibitions that may bring together works from the museum’s Islamic or related collections in ways they might otherwise not be assembled. Adjacent to this area is a display table with ‘hands on’ objects designated for public handling under the supervision of British Museum volunteers. In addition to supplementary audio-visual elements and a dedicated website, there are ample opportunities to learn about the collections both in person and online.

More recently, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. reinstalled their Islamic collections thematically by the senses, an online glimpse of which can be accessed here. And then you have smaller collections, such as the one I now look after at the San Diego Museum of Art, where — at the current moment — it makes more sense to feature material by region, but where I would like to create a space that allows me to highlight intersections between places, times, and objects through a dedicated installation.

Ultimately, how Islamic visual culture is displayed depends on the collection that you have and the story or stories you wish to tell, as well as the message/s you hope to communicate to diverse audiences. These factors will guide your approach. If the collection is pretty comprehensive, I am personally inclined toward a more classic, teleological approach that follows a chronological/geographical hierarchy while still including areas focusing on themes or special topics that can more easily be changed or updated to reflect changing times, interests, and audiences. I would shy away from dynastic divisions as most people would not understand or benefit from them, and because they also suggest artistic production in a vacuum. No matter the conceptual framework, however, I would always want to engage inter- and multidisciplinary approaches to the interpretation and understanding of the material, including the ways in which viewers can engage the works both in person and virtually.

There are numerous sources that explore this topic further, a few of which I have included below, and you will also find several reviews of major reinstallations of Islamic collections in recent years online if you search by institution. There are also several recent articles and books on the topic of decolonisation in museums and the changing definitions of the global museum, many of which do not necessarily focus on Islamic art and material culture, but which should be considered as part of the whole picture (see, for example, Dan Hicks and Alice Proctor).

  • The British Museum. The Making of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World. London: British Museum Press, 2018.
  • Carey, Moya, and Margaret S. Graves, eds. Islamic Art HistoriographyJournal of Art Historiography, no. 6 (June 2012). See especially editors’ introduction and essay by Wendy Shaw.
  • Rosemary Crill and Tim Stanley, eds. The Making of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2006.
  • Benoît Junod, Georges Khalil, Stefan Weber, and Gerhard Wolf, eds. Islamic Art and the Museum: Approaches to Art and Archaeology of the Muslim World in the Twenty-First Century. London: Saqi Books, 2012.
  • Kassim, Sumaya. “The museum will not be decolonised.” Media Diversified (15 November 2017).
  • Jenny Norton-Wright, ed. Curating Islamic Art Worldwide: From Malacca to ManchesterHeritage Studies in the Muslim World Pallgrave Macmillian, 2020.
  • Vernoit, Stephen. Discovering Islamic Art: Scholars, Collectors and Collections, 1850–1950. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

How different is the curatorial method in UK from those in the US?

I would not necessarily say curatorial methods differ between the UK and the US so much as institutions in these two countries, but that they may vary from one curator to another. Even within a single institution, different curators have different perspectives and approaches, and the projects they work on together ultimately reflect a collaboration encompassing their diverse views and approaches. My academic and curatorial training was in the United States, but I spent a decade in London at the British Museum with colleagues trained at British universities and museums, and all of us came from diverse cultural and language backgrounds. I believe this was a real asset to our work as a team, as these factors informed our intellectual discussions and our reconceptualisation of the Islamic collections and how they were ultimately displayed as the British Museum’s Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World. We had to overcome challenges arising from decisions about the final object checklist and how displays would be arranged, including areas where parts of the collection covered by one curator would ‘intersect’ with parts of the collection covered by another. At times, this required the negotiation of different ideas about how to approach material and narratives, but we ultimately found ourselves on the same page when it came to the overall conceptual framework for the two-room gallery. Given the depth and breadth of the British Museum Islamic collections, we all agreed on a primarily chronological/geographical framework down the centre of the gallery, with wall cases dedicated to themes or ‘stories in focus,’ dedicated spaces for light-sensitive works requiring frequent rotation, and an area for small exhibitions that could bring any combination of works together, including from other parts of the Museum.

Since curators work within institutions, however, I would distinguish museums in the UK from their counterparts in the US primarily in terms of their relationship to the empire and the role they have carved for themselves as repositories of colonial history, particularly in national collections. Introducing the idea of the museum to the European world, British museums are a product of colonialism holding vast collections of material acquired through colonial exploits and the African slave trade. If I compare my experience working at the British Museum to museums in the US, the biggest difference was the great size of the British Museum’s archives and institutional history and the rich, multi-layered stories tied to the colonial paths of so many objects in the collections. Any museum curator today must take seriously the history of the collections under their care — not only any colonial histories of objects but (if those histories teach anything) issues of provenance before acquisitions, and to work with their institutions to consider these histories, the impact of colonisation, and ways in which they can address or act more responsibly to promote or preserve global cultural heritage.

Finally, I feel like I should also point out that the UK falls significantly short of the US when it comes to curatorial salaries, which is saying something, as curators in the US are already paid less than their academic peers at universities.

What is your biggest challenge in a US museum when dealing with Islamic art collections?

As in my response to #2, I would say the challenge is not so much a US-related challenge, but rather a curatorial challenge in general for Islamic collections in Europe and North America, and I’ll make it a two-part challenge to address the internal and external. Internally, the biggest challenge (in museums claiming to hold encyclopaedic or comprehensive collections) is advocating for the growth and enhancement of Islamic collections and for their consideration and display to compare to that of European collections vs the frequent marginalisation of these collections as the ‘rest’ vs west. Externally, the biggest challenge is to build interest in Islamic art and material culture for wider audiences through interesting, focused exhibitions and displays that don’t always need to incorporate an introductory lesson on Islam and all of Islamic visual culture. Instead, they will appeal to diverse audiences through any number of entry points, whether through common themes in storytelling, technologies of production, the relationship to other disciplines such as science, or the role of the artist, craftsman, or patron. Or they will challenge viewers to engage with Islamic visual culture using the interpretative lens of Islamic discourse or the cultures in which the works were produced rather than through that of European Christian traditions.

Some recent sources offering fresh or appealing perspectives that might inspire engaging approaches to the display of Islamic art and material culture:

  • Glaire Anderson, “Mind and Hand: Earliy Scientific Instruments from al-Andalus, and ‘Abbas ibn Firnas in the Cordoban Umayyad Court.” Muqarnas 37 (2020). Pages 1–28.
  • Margaret Graves, Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, and Architecture in Medieval Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Wendy Shaw, What is Islamic Art? Between Religion and Perception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

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