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Islamic Galleries at the Met Have a Grand Reopening

  • Carolyn Weaver

It was eight years in the making. Now, New York’s Metropolitan Museum is reopening its enormous collection of Islamic art in a grand new setting. The objects span nearly 13 centuries and many cultures - and include items ranging from paintings to architectural works to medieval Korans.

The Metropolitan Museum has some of the richest holdings of Islamic art anywhere - but the collection has been largely out of sight for the last eight years, as the museum renovated. Now, the 15 new galleries have greatly expanded the museum's display space for Islamic art. The rooms are grouped by regions and period, from the 7th century to the end of the 19th century.

“Our galleries are named the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and later South Asia," said Sheila Canby, the Met’s chief curator for Islamic art. "We have done that because that is the geographical region, area, that we cover."

The reopening of the Met's Islamic galleries comes at a time of heightened interest in Islam around the world, and many visitors are expected.

They will see intricately woven carpets so large they had to be carried by a team and unfolded in palatial spaces. And a tiled prayer niche from Iran that was installed facing East, toward Mecca.

Craftsmen from the Moroccan city of Fez built one of the new galleries. They spent eight months creating a traditional Moroccan courtyard inside the museum - with a fountain, columns and lacy archways and ceramic tiles on the walls.

The Damascus Room, a huge, wood-paneled chamber from a wealthy 18th century household is also new. The room was disassembled in Syria, shipped to New York, and rebuilt inside the museum. Conservators repaired and restored each element of the carved and painted wood and the decorative tiles.

Sheila Canby says the room features floral patterns derived from Europe as well as geometric patterns and inscriptions.

“And inscriptions that are poetical inscriptions, that praise the house, praise the owner, and praise the prophet Mohammed," she said.

There are sculptures - like a pair of palace guards from medieval Iran and paintings of courtly scenes, or lovers embracing. There are household items, some extravagant, such as an enormous bronze incense burner in the shape of a lion. Others are simple.
but decorative - featuring the intricate geometric patterns, calligraphy and arabesques that dominate Islamic art because of Islam's taboo on depicting humans and animals.

One of Canby’s favorite pieces is a 10th century white bowl with black calligraphy that reads, “Planning before work saves you from regret.”

“That’s a very charming statement, but the fact is the object itself, I think, is sublimely beautiful because of that purity of design," she said.

And there are, of course, Koranic manuscripts with refined calligraphy.

Although the new setting is huge, the 1,200 pieces on display represent only one-tenth of the museum’s holdings of Islamic art.

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