World Museums Rethink Islamic Art: The Next Generation of Exhibits Builds Bridges in Ways You Might Not Expect

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When the Louvre unveiled its new Islamic art wing in September--under armed guard to avoid violence from the protests roiling Paris over a purportedly anti-Muslim cartoon--French president Francois Hollande called the exhibit an act of peace, a message of cultural pride to the nation's angry and disaffected young Muslims. Ten months earlier, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art had reopened its Islamic galleries after an eight-year hiatus, and critics hailed the redesign as a true window on the Middle East--a "rival space," said one critic, to that other site dominating American views of Islam, Ground Zero.

The sweeping claims made for these projects are not so farfetched. Major art museums all over the world have been "rehanging"--art speak for totally rethinking--their collections of Islamic art. Museums in Copenhagen, Athens, London, Toronto and Cairo have completed large-scale revisions; Berlin's Pergamon Museum plans to finish its revamp by 2019. Many of these projects have come to fruition just when the Arab Spring and subsequent upheavals have upped the ante on cross-cultural empathy, revealing Arabs. to Westerners as people with political yearnings we recognize.

A generation ago, displaying Islamic art was more about decorative brilliance than cultural context. Curators were connoisseurs, guiding viewers in technical appreciation of a static and alien world. The new approach turns a wider cultural lens on Islam and its history, with insight into the diversity of the region's religions and cultures and the complexity of its present. The idea isn't to produce a more positive (or negative) response but one that is more intimate, neither seeing the art in isolation from its culture nor obsessively linking it to the region's latest outrage or disaster.

It's a laudable effort on all counts. And it holds a sharp and particular interest for American Jews, who may have both the most difficult time seeing Islamic culture as anything but scary and hostile--for obvious and legitimate reasons--and the deepest well of potential cultural kinship with it.

The new scholarship focuses on universal themes, "not just how an object was made but why," says Sheila Canby, the Met's chief curator of Islamic art. Most of the objects in the Met's unparalleled collection, tour guides stress, were never intended for display. Unlike most Western art, they are "beloved, utilitarian objects"--a lamp, a prayer book, a cereal bowl--"raised from the ordinary to the extraordinary" by religious passion and human imagination.

None of this should be news to Washingtonians. The Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art have been doing this kind of thing since the Sackler opened in 1987, a pioneering counterpart to the Freer's more Classical presentation. At the Sackler's 25th anniversary gala in November, Julian Raby, the galleries' director, pledged that an upcoming Sackler redesign will give even more attention to "the interplay between the historical and the contemporary," including avant-garde artists working in the region today. …