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Islamic Art

The Metropolitan Museum's collection of Islamic art is the most comprehensive in the world. It includes more than 12,000 of the finest objects, dating from the seventh to the 20th century and reflecting the cultural and geographic sweep of historic Islamic civilization, which extends as far west as Spain, Morocco, and Senegal and as far east as India, Southeast Asia, and China. Outstanding holdings include the collections of glass and metalwork from Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia; more than 450 Islamic carpets—the largest collection in the United States, including a 16th-century Egyptian carpet in emerald green and wine red that is a masterpiece of Mamluk design and some 3,000 textiles; pages from a sumptuous copy of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, created for Shah Tahmasp (1514-76), and other outstanding royal miniatures from the courts of Persia and Mughal India; and a 14th-century glazed ceramic mihrab, or prayer niche, from a theological school in Isfahan.

The Museum received its first major group of Islamic objects in 1891, a bequest of Edward C. Moore. Since then, the collection has grown through gifts, bequests, and purchases. It has also received important artifacts through Museum-sponsored excavations at Nishapur, Iran, in 1935-39 and in 1947. It continues to have an active acquisition program.

At present the galleries are closed for renovation and plans have been made to enlarge and dramatically reinstall them in accordance with current thinking in the field and with modern museological practices. The new galleries for Islamic art are scheduled to re-open to the public in fall 2011.

Successive rooms in the new galleries will illustrate the rapid emergence of a new aesthetic from the cultural heritage of Byzantine Syria, Coptic Egypt, and Sasanian Iran; continual artistic interconnections with neighboring cultures, ranging from medieval Western Europe to Ming China; and finally, the impact of Islam's own abstract forms upon the arts of the modern world. The objects exhibited will emphasize the unity of vision underlying the rich diversity of regional styles while underscoring the distinct artistic character and cultural heritage of each individual area. When completed in late 2011, the Metropolitan's new complex will cover more than 19,000 square feet (1,800 square meters). The only complete period room of its type in the United States, the sumptuously ornamented Nur ad-Din Room from Damascus—built in 1707 and typical of Syrian homes of the wealthy during the Ottoman period—is undergoing restoration and will be a highlight of the new galleries. It also contains a fountain and flooring of richly colored marble, and the adjacent reception area features lavishly painted and gilded wooden paneled walls, with raised designs and poetic Arabic inscriptions, and high stained-glass windows permitting tinted light to enter. In the new galleries, it will be placed in its correct cultural and historical setting within the display of Ottoman art. In its new location, the room will function as an integral component of the Museum's comprehensive presentation of the arts of the Greater Ottoman Empire.

While the galleries are closed, the Department of Islamic Art has been involved in special collaborations and has organized major special exhibitions. Pearls of the Parrot of India, on view in fall 2005, centered around one of the most glorious manuscripts of the early Mughal period in India: an illustrated 1597-98 copy of the Khamsa (quintet of tales) by the extraordinary Indian poet Amir Khusraw Dihlavi. Twenty-nine surviving full-page illustrations from the manuscript are shared between the Walters Art Museum, which owns 21 paintings and the text within the manuscript's lacquer binding, and the Metropolitan Museum, which owns the remaining eight illustrated folios. As the Walter's manuscript was unbound for conservation purposes, it was the perfect opportunity to unite all the folios with some related material forming a small, high-quality exhibition.

Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797, on view in spring 2007, explored the exchange of art objects and interchange of artistic ideas between Venice and her Islamic neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean. During this millennium an impressive number of works of art traveled from East to West and sometimes vice versa, through diplomatic or commercial exchange or as booty. With nearly 200 works of art from glass, textiles, carpets, arms and armor, ceramics, sculpture, and metalwork, to furniture, paintings, drawings, prints, printed books, book bindings, and manuscripts from more than 60 public and private collections around the world, this exhibition showed Venice's role in the cultural interchange of the Mediterranean.

In addition, while the galleries are closed, outstanding objects from the collection can be seen throughout the Museum in various locations. In particular, the south end of the Great Hall Balcony contains a special installation of highlights in various media, ranging in date from the seventh to the 18th century and in origin from Spain in the west to Central Asia and India in the east. Occasionally works are displayed thematically.

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June 10, 2008

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