All of which was, of course, the consequence of trading patterns. The merchants of the Islamic caliphate from the 8th and 9th centuries onwards traded as far afield as China. Since China invented everything before anybody else, the ships brought back wonderful things – particularly ceramics – that the tradesfolk of the Levant adapted to their own materials and technologies. Hence the glories of Middle Eastern pottery and tile-making.
However, the deserved centrepiece of the Jameel Gallery (named after the founder of the Saudi-based trading conglomerate by his family which funded it) is the Ardabil carpet, the world’s oldest authentically dated one. At over 34 feet by 16 feet, it is enormous, its symmetrical patterning enormously subtle. It was made at Ardabil in Iran in 1539, one of a pair. We know who commissioned them: Shah Tahmasp, who used them in the shrine of his ancestor, Shaykh Safi al-Din. By the late 19th century they had found their way to Britain as part of the trade in Persian carpets. One was cannibalised to repair the other, which was put up for sale. The V&A dispatched none other than William Morris to check it out. He declared it a design of “singular perfection”, it was purchased for the then enormous sum of £2,000, and it has been in the museum’s collection ever since.
But never displayed so well. The carpet itself has now become the shrine, laid out within a low glass pavilion. This, like the rest of the new gallery, is designed by architects Softroom. Their clever move is to give the Ardabil carpet pavilion a projecting roof which asserts the importance of the object within. But the entire weight of the roof is suspended on cables running up to the museum’s rafters, so it floats above its walls of dematerialising, non-reflective glass. Other carpets and wall-hung objects are displayed behind opening sheets of glass so vast that some are the largest feasible pieces without demolishing the front of the museum to get them in. The side walls of the gallery are a kind of 3D vertical storage system while the display cases, as Softroom’s Oliver Salway points out, are miniature pieces of architecture/engineering, involving some heavy-duty concealed cantilevers to make them work. The only slight attempt at pastiche comes in the high-level clerestory glazing to the gallery, which is given a diagonally gridded interior in oblique reference to Islamic geometric patterning. The V&A deserves applause, by the way, for entrusting the new gallery – its first full renewal for over 50 years – to a young, promising practice that had not previously done any kind of museum gallery. That is enlightened patronage, which augurs well for the museum’s continuing “Future Plan” program of upgrades.
Elsewhere you find some of the fragments of original architecture for which the museum is famed: an Ottoman tilework chimneyplace, for instance, made in Istanbul in 1731, or a complete carved-mahogany “Minbar” or pulpit commissioned by Sultan Qa’itbay for a mosque in Cairo. There are also real treasures such as a rock crystal ewer – made around 1000-50 for the treasury of the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. Due reverence is paid, then, to the art of the Middle East, both religious and secular. Indeed, the whole structure of the display is bilaterally split between the two sides to show that – even though there is plenty of overlap – everything in the Islamic world does not come down to religion.
This is however mostly not the ancestral culture of British Muslims, with their predominantly Asian background.- their artefacts are alongside the Hindu collection in the next-door gallery. But of course the Middle Eastern objects have had a huge influence on British design culture already: the movers and shakers of the late 19th century design world – Morris, Owen Jones, William de Morgan among them – were mad for Middle Eastern art, seeing in it a purity missing from the trowelled-on ornamentation of high Victoriana. Islamic decoration, as interpreted by them, proved to be a stepping-stone towards modernism and abstraction.
The striking thing is that so much of the Jameel Gallery’s collection originated precisely where today’s bloody Middle Eastern struggles are taking place. So it, and the equivalent Islamic gallery at the British Museum – rejigged last year but not transformed as the V&A’s has been – are highly relevant. The V&A points out the lessons of history, talks of “the fruitful interchange between the Islamic world and its neighbours in Europe and Asia”. And when you ask him what he means, the museum’s director Mark Jones is explicit.
“I think that one of the things we can say is: looking back, this is a rich and complex history that has been marked by great tolerance for others,” he says.
“It is a historical fact that, on the whole, the Islamic world seemed to find it easier to tolerate other religions than Christendom did at the same time. Right up to the beginning of the 20th century a large proportion of the citizens of great cities such as Istanbul were Christians and Jews. So it seems a paradox and a shame that what historically was one of the more tolerant of the world’s religions has now become much less so.”
In the 19th century when the likes of Morris were helping to build up the V&A’s collections, there was a different agenda, says Jones. “There was a straightforward admiration for the way decoration was applied to plain surfaces. Now there is a shift to looking at them more in their historical and political contexts. It is worthwhile to remind people that the Islamc world has strong visual traditions. But the essence of what we are saying is that these things are absolutely beautiful.”
In the British Museum’s equivalent gallery, there is a telling ancient Islamic tile right next to a near-identical late 19th century one by William de Morgan. The BM is also currently running an exhibition of modern Middle-Eastern art. Its director Neil McGregor, makes a large claim: “Now that London is the most multi-cultural capital of them all, you are presenting the collections to the very people whose cultures they are,” he points out. “London has become the cultural capital of the Middle East.”
Let’s ponder that for a moment. London the cultural capital of the Middle East? With Baghdad and Beirut all but destroyed in recent years, MacGregor means it. Istanbul, I venture? Doesn’t have Arabic script, which is vital for the continuation of the visual culture, he responds.
Whatever, the upshot of all this is that the nation’s collections need to change – from the predominantly late 19th century view of “Islamic” art being broadly that of the olive-and-date belt of the mediaeval caliphate, to a broader world picture that includes Asia, Indonesia and, for instance, England. But as MacGregor points out, the picture is more complex than that. London is both importing and making Middle Eastern culture, and it is not all Islamic. His “Word into Art” exhibition of modern Middle Eastern art is by no means exclusively Muslim, and several of its artists are London-based. Let us not forget Zaha Hadid, Baghdad-born British citizen who is now one of the most successful international architects in the world. Many of London’s “middle eastern” artists see themselves as essentially secular, MacGregor believes: though a glance at his latest exhibition shows many of them engaging with the iconography of their cultures. Because there is no more a single Islamic or Middle Eastern culture than there is a single Christian or European culture.
British museums are engaging with this complexity rather better than some. Although MacGregor is diplomatic about Paris’s new museum of world cultures, the Musee du Quai Branly – condemned as cringingly, even insultingly condescending by many in the curatorial world – he is mischievously prepared to quote president Jacques Chirac describing it as “a view of others” as if those “others” were elsewhere than all round him in the Paris suburbs. McGregor takes an entirely different view. “The whole basis of an Enlightenment museum is that everyone is interconnected,” he says.
The French establishment does seem to have a Tintin view of other cultures. But if we have greater sensitivities on this score, what good does it do us? Standing in the V&A as the 7/7 two-minute silence was observed, I had no sudden surge of confidence that Mark Jones’ splendidly-designed shrine to Islamic art at the V&A, or Neil McGregor’s Middle Eastern focus at the BM, would somehow make the terrorist problem, or the misguided foreign policy problem, go away.
Merely placing beautiful objects in a geographical and political context, and gently pointing out how the different cultures used to get along better, is not going to stop the holy fools of any tendency. And yet, looking at these objects, you can’t help feeling that somehow they might help. That Mark Jones is right. That these things are simply extraordinarily beautiful. It is obviously not enough. But it’s a start.
Victoria and Albert Museum: www.vam.ac.uk
British Museum: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk
Text © Hugh Pearman, photos of gallery by Richard Wait. Other images © V&A images/Victoria and Albert Museum. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, 23 July 2006.