ON NOVEMBER 1 OF LAST YEAR, after much anticipation and a series of celebratory events, the new "Islamic Art" galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened to the public. They had been closed for more than eight years to allow for the renovation of the Greek and Roman galleries immediately below (the heavy machinery's vibrations might have damaged the delicate objects) and during their hiatus had undergone their own extensive renovation. Their surface area and content have been expanded, their appearance and significance transformed. The result is nothing less than spectacular.
The new galleries have visibly been designed and curated with the aim of achieving maximum wow effect. Packed with almost twelve hundred artifacts, many of which have been brought back from storage and a few of which are recent acquisitions, the galleries easily qualify as the top exhibit of Islamic art in the United States and one of the top five worldwide. Proceeding through fifteen interconnected rooms arranged in two concentric layers around a central courtyard, the visitor moves counterclockwise in roughly chronological order from the art of the Umayyads and Abbasids in the Arab world and Iran, where the earliest exhibits date from the seventh century, to the art of Mughal South Asia, where the most recent work is not much more than a century old. The galleries in between cover Iran and central Asia (with one gallery spanning the ninth through thirteenth centuries and another the thirteenth through sixteenth); Egypt and Syria (tenth through sixteenth centuries); Spain, North Africa, and the western Mediterranean (eighth through nineteenth centuries); the Ottoman world (fourteenth through twentieth centuries); and Safavid and later Iran (sixteenth through twentieth centuries) in what amounts to an almost comprehensive historical-geographic survey of the Islamic world.
Along the way, the visitor encounters a few specialized smaller galleries, anterooms that function as side excursions in the historical journey. First is the Nishapur and Sabz Pushan Gallery, containing intricate stucco panels carved with abstract designs and excavated by Met-sponsored expeditions to these important medieval Iranian sites. Second is the Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery, named after the famous patron of Islamic art and dedicated to temporary shows. Then comes the reconstructed Damascus Room, which, with its painted boiserie and marble mosaic floor, elegantly exemplifies Syrian Ottoman residential halls of the eighteenth century. And finally there is the Alhambresque courtyard, a new addition, complete with slender Nasrid columns, gurgling fountain, geometric zilij dadoes, coffered wooden ceiling, and intricate stucco carving exquisitely executed by craftsmen from Fez, Morocco. The space serves both as an interlude of repose and as a contextualizing prelude to the Spain and North Africa gallery. It is also meant to demonstrate the survival of the crafts that produced the gems of medieval Islamic architecture: a mixed message that seems to stress both historicism and uninterrupted creativity.
Throughout, the visitor is dazzled, awed, and educated not only about art but also about Islamic history and cultures, in a discreet bid to counter the negative rap that Islam and Muslims have sustained recently. This brings us to a delicate problem that has been endlessly discussed by the museum's curators and managers and by most reviewers: In undertaking its ambitious redesign, the museum set itself the task of contributing to the effort to rehumanize "Islam" after the attacks of 9/11 without appearing too didactic and without losing sight of the main objective--which is to show art, not elucidate a beleaguered religion. In their effort to meet this challenge, the curators have pursued multiple strategies, some more successful than others. But all, taken together, raise fundamental questions about art, culture, politics, and the role of art museums in today's globalized world. …