The Oriental Museum, Durham University, opened to the public in 1960. Over the last 60 years the collection has grown to over 36,000 objects, including two Designated collections and welcomes more than 33,000 visitors including almost 7,000 school children a year.
Our collection of archaeology and material culture from West and Central Asia has developed over time through donations and targeted collecting but it has only been in recent years, and with the continued support of the SSN Islamic Art and Material Culture, that we have started to re-evaluate and reinterpret our Islamic collections from these regions.
In 2019 we successfully applied to the SSN’s Calligraphy Support Scheme which provided funding for Professor James Allan, Oxford University, to visit the museum and translate Arabic and Farsi text on between 30 and 40 pieces from the collection. Professor Allan assessed a wide variety of objects including amulets and jewellery, ceramics, works on paper and weapons. The information he was able to provide us with has greatly enhanced our understanding of the collection and will help us interpret the material more accurately in the future. Some of the pieces also turned out to have interesting backstories including a small, metal stopper (Fig. 1) which seemed rather dull and unassuming. However, once the inscription on it had been translated it turned out to be a stopper for a bottle of qamar al-din, the sweet peach drink traditionally enjoyed during the holy month of Ramadan.
Fig 1 DUROM.u489.d1 Stopper from bottle of qamar al-din
Following on from Professor Allan’s visit we welcomed photographer Luke Unsworth who took beautiful digital images of 30 pieces from the collection which had previously had no photography. These images have now been uploaded to our online database which can be accessed through the Discover Durham Collections search facility (https://www.dur.ac.uk/oriental.museum/whatshere/discover/) . This has made our collection more accessible and searchable by the general public and researchers.
The next step is to incorporate a number of pieces reviewed by Professor Allan into our new Silk Roads gallery which will be opening to the public later on in the year. The gallery will not just look at the flow of goods along the numerous trading routes which criss-crossed the continent but also the diffusion of languages, religions, art and architecture. One piece translated by Professor Allan which will make an appearance in the gallery and which perfectly encapsulates this movement and exchange of ideas is a bronze vase (Fig.2) manufactured in Ming dynasty China and bearing the inscription la ilah ila allah, “There is no god but God”.
Fig 2 DUROM.1973.1.d1 Bronze Vase
To celebrate the opening of the gallery (post Covid-19) the Calligraphy Support Scheme will hopefully support us in hosting three calligraphy workshops entitled ‘Art of the Pen’ provided by artist Soraya Syed. One of the workshops will be undertaken by our Learning Team who will incorporate these new skills into the teaching of Early Islam for Key Stage 2 students; one will be provided as part of our regular Creative Age art workshops for people living with dementia and their carers; and the final workshop will be open to the public.
The team at the Oriental Museum cannot thank the SSN enough for all the support that they have given us over the years and we hope that it is partnership which will continue to grow and develop.
Gillian Ramsay – Assistant Curator, Oriental Museum Durham University