Visitors to the British Museum’s new gallery of the Islamic World should take note: this is not a gallery dedicated to Islam, the religion, but a gallery of the Islamic world, that is to say a vast portion of the globe stretching from Africa to Indonesia. So, while the religion itself is given due consideration, the works here are infinitely various.
And, given the number of ethnicities and religions that this vast area includes, not to say the temporal span of the galleries — from the Arab world just before the birth of Mohammed in the sixth century to the art of Idris Khan in the 21st century — that gives tremendous scope for drawing out unseen treasures from the BM’s vast holdings.
You get games, amulets and charms, astrolabes, costumes (fabulous) and shadow puppets as well as the tiles and calligraphy you would expect. Obviously the BM already had a gallery devoted to the Islamic world, but this is a reordering and expansion of it thanks to a large donation from the Malaysian Albukhary Foundation.
Neil MacGregor, the previous head of the BM, who received the donation, was looking round when I was there, and he was justifiably proud of the whole thing, The donors, he said, hadn’t sought to restrict the nature of the exhibits but they had asked that it should reflect the breadth of the Islamic world, not just the more obvious Arab, Persian and Ottoman elements. It does.
That enormous geographical reach means that the curators can put Islamic culture constantly in the context of the others with which it came into contact, through trade and conquest and the movement of artists: Sasanians, Byzantines, Romans.
In the first room, given over to the Islamic world before 1500, there’s a moving display from pre-Islamic Palmyra, the legendary city of Zenobia, represented by a funerary monument of a dead youth with a bunch of grapes, c 150BC. The viewer must supply the melancholy backdrop: the destruction of so much of its archaeology by IS in 2015 — the BM has a function as an ark for artefacts. The question of Islam and figurative art is dealt with: the prohibition on figures in the context of worship plainly left scope for a variety of later interpretations. We get some interesting iconoclasm: birds used to decorate the Koran on a 14th-century ceramic which were decapitated by later fundamentalists.
The layout is sane: chronological, subdivided by geography. That means that there’s a coherent whole, within which are fascinating digressions in the side cases into themes such as charms, games or musical instruments. The costume cases are a delight: like so much of these displays they will be changed at intervals.
There are really fine pieces here: splendid examples of the legendary metalwork of Herat and the initially unprepossessing 11th-century Nihavand hoard from Iran, including a fine little gold wine bowl with a perky duck motif. But everyday objects have their charm too: who’d have thought that water filters could be so beautifully worked?
What’s evident here too is the effect of so much Islamic art on our culture: look at the star and cross tiles above. Very Walter Crane, no?
These galleries will be crowded from the off; one of the intentions is to engage local communities. For small viewers, there are figures of birds and animals at ankle level. Brave the crowds. This is an insight into a whole world, in two rooms.