Tolerance and Dissent

Representations of Islam at the Metropolitan Museum after 9/11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, New York City was struck by the greatest terror attack the United States had ever seen, led by the radical Islamist group al-Qaeda. One of the biggest impacts of the event was its effects on public consciousness and the perception of Islam in America. Very shortly after the attack, Islamophobia started to prevail as an ideology within public debates on religion, culture, and politics. Among these, the debate on the representations of Islam in cultural institutions led to the realization of a bigger question at hand: the responsibilities of an institution in reflecting the political view of the nation-state and the public. At the center of this cultural controversy were the nation’s leading museums, and in particular, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The turmoil of the 9/11 attacks left the Metropolitan in purgatory, not only in terms of its responsibility to the American public, but also to that of the Islamic world. Consequently, almost two years after the incident, the museum closed down its “Islamic Art” galleries, only to reopen them eight years later with a distinctively new image. The newly designed galleries exhibit Islamic arts in the way that the Metropolitan believed to be politically and academically correct. Nonetheless, the curation of the department had more underlying implications than the institution had intended for it to have, especially in its name and the collection of objects it contained. The renovated galleries reflected the Metropolitan’s attempt to “humanize” Muslims by displaying their ability to create and make “good” art—the greatest indicator of high civilization—and educate the public on the true history and identity of the Islamic world. Unfortunately, the museum fell short in accomplishing either of those goals.

Before the renovation started, the Metropolitan housed all of the objects and artifacts made by Islamic civilizations, commissioned by Muslim patrons, and influenced by Islam under the same roof, in the “Islamic Art” gallery. The collection on display was defined by the term “Islamic Art,” an art history discipline that had emerged from twentieth century Western museums. The museum believed that this term was fitting due to the stylistic trends prevalent throughout the collection, a general “liking for overall surface decoration” that is characteristic of Islam (Qureshi). The initial department, established in 1975, was almost half the size of the renovated one and exhibited a very low percentage of the museum’s complete collection of almost twelve thousand items. In the following years, the exhibition was mostly left unchanged (Kaleem). In an article published in 2011, New York Times journalist Randy Kennedy noted that numerous scholars and art professionals had complained about the inadequacy of the gallery, deeming it insufficiently cataloged and organized without due thought in a simple chronological arrangement (Kennedy). The exhibition clearly undermined sensory aspects of the visitor’s experience and aimed to only display the analytical and objective “truth” about Islam and its heritage (Chakrabarty 8). While the Metropolitan closed the doors to these galleries in 2003, the renovation project was not initiated until 2009, since the institution was going through an economic downturn. Regardless, the lengthiness of the renovation suggested that the project addressed something bigger than a physical reconstruction. The announced reason for the closing was that it was going to make way for the enlargement of the Greek and Roman galleries. Yet in a way, the Metropolitan was displacing Islamic with Western art in the wave of the 9/11 attacks (Kennedy).

It was not a coincidence for the museum to reopen the gallery on November 1st, 2011, almost exactly ten years after September 11. What was significant about the renovation process was that it took place against the cultural backdrop of eight years, a time in which debates over Islamic countries started to prevail in global politics. The undertaken project was a great challenge to complete within the physical and political boundaries of the museum, and marked a turning point “in America’s awareness of the visual culture of the Islamic world” (Kennedy). In other words, the Metropolitan was not only reshaping the perception of a culture, but also making a diplomatic statement about an ongoing controversy (Kennedy).

The most obvious and formal change about the renovation was the renaming of the gallery: “The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” The previous name, “Islamic Art,” was considered too broad to define the collection because the meaning of the term depended on where, how, and in what context it was used (Kennedy). Also, the modern geographical connotations of the term did not match history, for the physical boundaries of the Islamic world had changed drastically over time. According to New York Times art critic Holland Cotter’s 2011 article, the new title given to the galleries aimed to present the art included as more secular, varied and regional compared to its previous religious representation (Cotter). In an article published in Artforum in 2012, Nasser Rabbat, the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture at MIT, explained the situation as such: “The curators chose the title in order to convey the variousness of Islamic art and its geographically distinct expressions, as well as to deemphasize the religious identity associated with the old name, since Islamic art, like any other art, has many non-religious manifestations” (Rabbat 78). Nonetheless, as Rabbat noted, the new name of the galleries is not as neutral as it may seem.

To begin with, the title was geographically incomplete because it did not include Spain, or Al-Andalus in the historical context, even though the gallery housed works from the region. The institution’s justification for eliminating Spain from the name was the possibility of a public backlash that would raise political and religious concerns for both Middle Eastern and European countries (Rabbat 78). Furthermore, the term “Later South Asia” could be considered an ambiguous statement about the history of both South Asia and Islam. It is not clear what differentiates “earlier” from “later” South Asia, but the terming suggests that the museum saw the emergence of Islam in the region as the turning point for this particular periodizing. Likewise, the inclusion of “Turkey” in the list limits the displayed art to a specific time and place, for the region was not called Turkey before Muslim Turks invaded the lands in the eleventh century. Thus, the periodized and geographical new name of the galleries still limit the exhibited art as that produced in lands thought to be dominated by Islam. Ultimately, the Metropolitan’s goal in formulating this list was “to be both culturally sensitive in its avoidance of disputed geographies, such as India and Pakistan, and politically savvy in its adherence to the main national and territorial identities that form the modern Islamic world” (Rabbat 78). Nevertheless, the name was comprehended almost as problematically and controversially as the previous one because it constructed erroneous conceptions about Islam and its relationship to history.

Besides its renaming, the gallery went through other formal changes in both physical design as well as inventory size and variety, as the collection was expanded and recurated over the course of eight years. The final and current version of the gallery consists of fifteen interconnected rooms that radiate around two circles, and the visitor can experience the collection in a nearly chronological order by touring counterclockwise (Rabbat 74). Moreover, the location of the gallery has been intricately chosen to create a symbolic bridge between the East and the West, with its entryway leading to the adjacent European paintings gallery (Kennedy). In tandem with these changes, the number of items on display was doubled, and monumental architectural pieces made by native Middle Eastern artisans were incorporated into the body of the galleries. The exhibit now included art that was inspired by Islam but was not “Islamic,” like a fifteenth century Hebrew Bible that is often confused for a Qur’an. In terms of incorporating architectural elements into the display, the museum went to great lengths such as commissioning Moroccan artisans to build a Moroccan courtyard with traditionally carved arches and a fountain (Kaleem).

The physicality of the gallery was deeply influenced by the curator’s decisions. The collection was organized “more by the map than the calendar,” since the objects were reorganized according to their regions of production rather than their “place” in history (Kennedy), as opposed to the chronological scheme of the previous exhibit. The employment of various new techniques of display, like close lighting on the carpets and installation according to angle, created an appropriate ambiance of warmth and allure that was missing before the renovation (Kennedy). The aesthetic connection among the objects mostly depends on an “arabesque” taste and the curators clearly focused on calligraphy and geometric abstraction as visual binders to create a holistic exhibit (Cotter).

Regardless of these changes, the formal features of the new gallery and its collection were still created within the boundaries of a Westernized image of Islam. The objects on display have more physical similarities than differences, which causes the viewer to assume a shared religion is the reason for aesthetic uniformity across the collection (Rabbat 78). The architectural elements within the gallery detract from the inherent value of the objects, casting them in an ambiguous territory between works of art and of culture (Rabbat 76). Also, the collection includes pieces that raises questions about the acquisition process and the museum’s attitude towards Islam’s principles. For example, on display are seventy eight pages from The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Originally the book was much longer, but it was torn apart by a collector who divided and sold its pages to various institutions including the Metropolitan (Cotter). Another controversy is the display of illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad. As Imam Abdallah Adhami, the appointed imam of the Ground Zero mosque which was never built, stated in an interview to the New York Times, “Theologically it’s unacceptable, and that’s pretty straightforward” (Kennedy). According to the rules of Islam, making images of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, which makes their exhibition impossible. Nevertheless, the Metropolitan chose to put these portraits on alternating display, due to light sensitivity and preservation matters (Rabbat 76). The museum’s decision was based on a greater concern of keeping a comprehensive and apolitical approach to the subject matter, but it also raised concerns about the extent to which Muslims’ opinions were considered and respected within the institution.

Ultimately, the collection does not include any object from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, subtly implying that the “formal idea of Islamic art ends in the nineteenth century” (Qureshi). In an essay published in 2008 by George Washington University, Professor Jessica Winegar claims that the display of historical art frequently indicates “past glory and achievement,” and the emphasis is put on “what once was” rather than “what it is” (661- 662). In the Metropolitan’s case, the exclusion of contemporary artworks suggests that no work made after the emergence of European colonialism in the region is worthy of display, labeling it “bad” art, and by extension, reflects the ancient notion of “how Islam once contributed to Western civilization” (Winegar 663). Such implications, whether intentional or not, create problems in a wider context, like the public image of Islam and its politics. For instance, in an NPR article, journalist Bilal Qureshi discusses the effects of this issue on teaching about Islam, noting that a college professor once admitted to having problems relating the ancient beauty of the culture to the challenging present of the Islamic world. As can be seen, the difficulty of using aesthetics as a physical binder leads to greater complications related to the visitor’s experience and the public image of Islam. Consequently, the types of cultural products on display are given deeper political and historical meaning by the viewer, and the Metropolitan fails to reflect the history and identity of Islam with accuracy.

Primarily the formal changes mentioned above were developed parallel to the curatorial aims of the gallery and the principles of the museum, yet the failures of the physical renovation are far more visible than that of its curatorial causality. While the public remarks of the Metropolitan’s Head of the Department for Islamic arts and the curator of the new gallery suggest a strong belief in the idea of a world heritage being contained within the museum, they also connote the ancient colonial nature of the institution. In an interview with the New York Times, Sheila Canby, the Head of the Department of Islamic Arts, provided her reflections on the new galleries: “There is always a tendency to vilify a people as if they have come out of nothing. But these things are humanizing. They show the beauty and achievement and even the sense of humor of a great culture” (Kennedy). Her comments from other articles are almost supplementary to this remark, and convey her trust in the museum’s educational power in debunking stereotypes and providing an “idea of Islam through the material culture” rather than media representations (Qureshi). Similar to Canby, Navina Haidar, a curator of the galleries, has mentioned that her hope for the renovation was to present Islamic arts in a new context, one that would highlight the global cultural and economic trade links that gave way to this art and show that it is a part of world heritage, not just Islamic history (Qureshi, Kaleem). Both professionals have stated that the main aims of the renovation were to provide “an alternative to the predominant political narrative” and to educate the public on a foreign culture, and described their approach to the renovation as “dispassionate and apolitical” like the discipline of art history itself (Qureshi). The reflections of Canby and Haidar suggest that they may also be followers of an exhibitionary movement, initiated after 9/11, that promotes harmonious coexistence between the East and the West, and provides a correct model of Islam to diminish stereotypes (Winegar 665).

While at first these remarks seem as detached as they are claimed to be, the notion of “humanizing” a foreign culture through the exhibition of their arts is highly political and has deep roots in Western philosophy. The belief that art is the greatest indicator of advancement and civilization is central to Immanuel Kant’s philosophical work on aesthetics, which holds that art “is a uniquely valuable and uncompromised agent of cross-cultural understanding” and that it “constitutes the supreme evidence of a people’s humanity” (Winegar 657, 652). During the nineteenth century, the increasing number of World’s Fairs and the rise of anthropology supported and helped grow the idea of using material culture as proof of modernity and progress (Winegar 657). The World’s Fairs were particularly successful in spreading the thought of a shared humanity divided into “a racial-cultural hierarchy,” in which the exhibited items both signified a common legacy and Western superiority (Winegar 658). Further in the twentieth century, the rise of capitalism led to the birth of a market that “thrives on difference” and the valuation of specific objects as “good” (Winegar 660). Thus, it seemed possible that through the selection, marketing and consumption of certain types of art, cultural institutions could sustain alternative images of a foreign culture. Nevertheless, the philosophy of art as an indicator of humanity could not negate the museum’s attempts at destroying stereotypes, because it undermines the ways in which its representations create a particular view of “Middle Eastern politics, culture and religion, and by extension of all Muslims” (Winegar 652). Moreover, the secularist efforts to find art that proves “the historical achievements and modernity of Middle Eastern Muslims” gives the impression that the art often refers or is connected to Islam in some way, emphasizing their religious significance (Winegar 653).

Some curatorial defeats of the new galleries were almost inevitable due to the museum’s responsibility to the public and the sensitivity of the discourse on the subject matter. In the first place, the selection of the objects to be publicly exhibited depends on highly political factors such as evaluative standards, institutional demands and the surrounding market (Winegar 652). The art in American museums has to address the tastes and demands of the market’s founders to be able to have a place within the institution. In addition, as Mirjam Shatanawi, curator at the Tropenmuseum of Amsterdam, discusses in her essay “Curating against Dissent: Museums and the Public Debate on Islam,” the museum has to take the visitor attitudes and preferences into account when preparing an exhibition (Shatanawi 184). With this particular case, the Metropolitan had to succumb to the desire of the public to see evidence of Islam in every artifact in the gallery and eliminated many types of cultural production by people from and of the Middle East. Such an elimination suggests that the items that have been excluded may be perceived as unworthy art that does not belong in an American museum, enhancing the rooted stereotypes that already exist in the public debate. Thus, the curators are left with an inescapable responsibility to select artworks to become representatives of a certain culture and history that is defined as Middle Eastern or Islamic, reducing the complexity of the culture and homogenizing all aspects into one (Winegar 655).

Inherently, the question of accurately representing the “other” within an American museum poses even more problems due to the colonialist and orientalist past of the institution. Today, more and more museums are trying to challenge existing stereotypes of Muslims by using historical artworks as evidence for the centuries-long interactions between the West and Islam, with the hopes of improving “contemporary cross-cultural relationships” (Winegar 662). Through the synthesis of production of cultural vehicles, correct representation of cultures and visitor response, the museum is able to construct meaning and teach the public the analytical “truth” about the subject (Shatanawi 183, 184). In this way, museums act “as mediators for cultures in confrontation” by providing a philosophical or aesthetic framework for discourse (Shatanawi 177). Nonetheless, in the case of Islam and the West, it seems to be nonviable for one of the nation’s most important museums to escape stereotyping when Islam itself is seen as a cliché topic in daily discussions (Shatanawi 177).

To remain politically neutral when representing Islam, most museums resort to taking a solely aesthetic or art historical approach. Both approaches are problematic in the sense that they disregard the complexity of the culture at hand. Putting the focus on the physical beauty of the artifacts ignores the growing demand of the public to learn the cultural and religious context of a culture, while the art historical approach simply rejects the aesthetic success of any art from the Islamic lands made after the 1800s, suggesting a parallel between the decline of the power of Islam and its “decaying” art (Shatanawi 178). This innately colonialist approach is supported by the postcolonialist perspective of today’s museums, which is that the progress of modernity can be traced through the art history of a particular culture. The Kantian idea of art’s autonomy, its separated existence from politics and religion, intensifies its power as a critique for the advance of civilization. That being said, the Western desire to present Middle Eastern art in this philosophical frame is not only because of the need for objectivity, but also because of the government’s political interests, such as the extension of the American influence on Middle Eastern economics and politics  (Winegar 661). In addition, one should consider the fact that these modern exhibitions related to Islamic art are being created in a context where present-day Islamic civilizational decline is being proved through its people’s violent and destructive engagement with art (Winegar 664). Consequently, the attempt to bring the creative and humane aspects of the culture to light through their art might be considered to have even more radical implications. Due to the intricate selection process of the works of art on display and their categorization as “good art,” the eliminated works are not allowed to be part of the “world heritage” that the museum is trying to construct (Winegar 671). Likewise, the notion of “art as the indicator of humanity” unreasonably qualifies all Westerners as connoisseurs of art, and refuses the possibility of Americans being outside the category of the “human” or “anti-creative destruction” (Winegar 672). Unfortunately, such thoughts of Western superiority are almost impossible to destroy, for they are deeply grounded in Euro-American consciousness and politics.

In conclusion, the Metropolitan Museum’s efforts to “humanize” Muslims through the academic and apolitical exhibition of their art has had more negative than positive outcomes. The renovation of the “Islamic Art” gallery, which was both a political and cultural statement for the museum, consisted of the renaming of the gallery, change in inventory, and entirely new interior design. Most of the physical adjustments aimed to reflect the museum’s comprehensive approach to the art of Islamic civilizations yet failed to remove the exhibition from a purely Islamic context. For instance, the new name of the gallery is geographically and periodically inaccurate, hinting at a constructed time frame for the history of Islamic art. The binding aesthetic of the collection is still the arabesque, a style of art which has been strictly associated with Islam for over centuries. The collection also houses a few questionably-acquired and controversial items such as the Shahnama pages and the portraits Prophet Muhammad. Moreover, the exhibition lacks works of art from the nineteenth century onward, implying that art from contemporary Muslim communities is not worthy of being displayed at the Metropolitan. Still, the biggest errors of the renovation are due to curatorial goals and decisions. Both the head of the department for the art and the curator of the new gallery truly believed in the idea of integrating Islamic art history into world heritage through the humanization of Muslims and the power of the museum to educate the public on the subject matter. While these conceptions seem highly natural and neutral to the professionals, the idea of humanizing the “other” through the exhibition of art, the product of civilizational advancement, dates way back to Kantian philosophy and postcolonial politics. Many social factors, such as the rise of capitalism and the emergence of anthropology, have contributed to the survival and growth of this idea until today, which is why it is still so deeply rooted in Western society. Thus, one can say that the curators’ failure to recognize the politics of their own approach caused the exhibition to take on an unexpected political identity. On the other hand, some defeats of the renovation were inevitable due to the museum’s responsibilities to its audience and the delicacy of the subject matter. For example, the demand of the visitors to see “evidences” of Islam in each piece within the collection resulted in the lack of particular types of art, signifying that they were not “good art” that could belong in the world heritage narrative of the American national museum. The responsibility of representing a foreign culture that is publicly vilified forced the museum to take a very aesthetics-based approach to the gallery, eliminating a lot of historical and religious aspects of the context. Thus, the new gallery ended up promoting the idea of “a past utopia of cultural understanding that can be regained through art appreciation” (Winegar 663). The narrative presented by the museum traffics the idea of the past glory and current decline of the Islamic world, which is politically and economically inaccurate according to current politics (Winegar 664). In sum, the Metropolitan Museum’s endeavors of portraying a correct model of Islam as an alternative to the narratives of the media and educating the public remain unsuccessful.

Works Cited

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Museums in Late Democracies.” Humanities Research 9.1 (2002): 5-12. Australian National University. Web. 17 April, 2017.

Cotter, Holland. “A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty.” The New York Times 27 October, 2011: C27. 27 October, 2011. Web. 11 April, 2017.

Kaleem, Jaweed. “Islamic Art Galleries Reopen at the Metropolitan Museum.” Huffington Post, 11 February, 2011. Web. 17 April, 2017.

Kennedy, Randy. “Placing Islamic Art on a New Pedestal.” The New York Times 22 September, 2011, Art and Design sec.: 1. Print.

Qureshi, Bilal. “Opulent And Apolitical: The Art Of The Met’s Islamic Galleries.” NPR. 03 August, 2015. Web. 10 April, 2017.

Rabbat, Nasser. “What’s in a Name?” Artforum 50.5 (2012): 74-78. Print.

Shatanawi, Mirjam. “Curating against Dissent: Museums and the Public Debate on Islam.” Political and Cultural Representations of Muslims. Leiden: NL, 2012. 177-192. Proquest ebrary. Web. 11 April, 2017.

Winegar, Jessica. “The Humanity Game: Art, Islam, and the War on Terror.” Anthropological Quarterly, no. 3, 2008, p. 651. EBSCO host. Web. 2 May, 2017.