The timing could hardly be more symbolic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic department closed in 2003, as war loomed with Iraq. Now, on 1 November, just over a decade after 9/11, the department reopens in a grandiose suite of new galleries where 1,200 of the department’s 12,000 objects are on display in 19,000 square feet of space.
Here are priceless Persian carpets, delicate Iznik ceramics, exquisite Mughal miniatures, and a 14th-century tiled prayer niche from medieval Isfahan inscribed with verses from the Qur’an. There is an astrolabe, dated 1291, made by a Rasulid prince from modern Yemen; and a voluptuous Safavid tile panel from 17th-century Iran, showing a sexily deshabillé courtesan desporting herself in a garden, with a be-ruffed European merchant kneeling at her feet.
The museum has even built its own “medieval” Moroccan patio, bringing in craftsmen from Fez to construct a tiled and stuccoed courtyard incorporating original Nasrid columns, and with a fountain – sprinkled with rose petals – gently bubbling at its centre.
The galleries cover art from a span of 13 centuries and a vast geographical spread: there are artefacts from Spain to Syria, the Indian subcontinent to Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. Posters lined outside the museum urge passersby to “Rediscover the Islamic World”.
At the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the galleries, Thomas P Campbell, the British-born director of the museum, was clear about the political urgency of the galleries. “We must recognise,” he told the assembled great and good, politicians and donors who had gathered in the Met’s central foyer, “that we live in a nation where a widespread consciousness about the Islamic world really did not exist until 10 years ago, and that awareness came at one of the darkest hours in American history.” He added: “It is our job and the great achievement of these galleries to educate our audience about the depths and magnificence of the Islamic tradition.”
While the timing is coincidental – the Met works on its own schedule, not on that of international politics – Campbell later told the Guardian: “We could have shied away from the 9/11 anniversary, but we felt that made the goal of the galleries all the more urgent. And the background of the Arab spring only heightens attention to parts of the world represented in the galleries.
“We don’t present ourselves as an answer to contemporary political issues; but one aspect of our work is in mutual understanding and education. To give our audience a more nuanced understanding of the past is a constant goal. There is an enormous breadth of thought, creativity and intellect behind the objects in these galleries – and they give a different perspective on a part of the world often presented in a reductive way.”
Campbell acknowledges that there had been a certain nervousness about launching the Met’s new galleries in the wake of the protests attracted by Park 51, the planned Muslim community centre near to the Ground Zero site.
“We didn’t want to get caught up in the whiplash effect from the rhetoric around that,” he said. “Ten years after 9/11, sensitivities are still raw.”
The museum struck pre-emptively, with an outreach campaign “that was one of the most ambitious we have ever mounted,” said Campbell.
Sheila Canby, the curator in charge of the Islamic galleries, said: “We have really reached out to the leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths in New York. They have been helpful and positive. I am sure someone somewhere isn’t going to be pleased – but we haven’t heard anything yet and I hope we won’t.”
Met employees have also worked with the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero. “We want to find ways to work together, not throw mud at each other,” said Canby.
The politics extend beyond the domestic audience. For the first time, the museum is working with the state department to promote the galleries via videos and posters in the public spaces of US embassies worldwide.
If the initiative is partly about attracting visitors to the museum, there is also a deeper, more subtle, message to convey: that the US takes the culture of the Islamic world seriously and is interested in exploring it beyond the cliches and the news headlines.
Harnessing cultural institutions as a tool of soft diplomacy is more frequent in Europe, where national museums are publicly funded, than in the US. The British Museum, for example, worked closely with the Iranian authorities when bringing its Shah Abbas exhibition to London in 2009, and with China in 2005 before its “terracotta warriors” show devoted to the first emperor, Qin Shihuandi.
For the privately financed Met, though, this is a fresh step. According to Campbell: “We are not a tool of government, we are independent. But it is wonderful for us to be able to promote our galleries to a global audience – and show that there is a thirst for more understanding in America of these regions.”
Canby, who joined the Met in 2009 after 18 years at the British Museum, declared the move “wonderful. At the British Museum, director Neil MacGregor has made a point of this kind of initiative and has been very successful. It’s not that we are copying them, rather that the state department is particularly interested now in this and they see the point. The initiative has been pursued from both sides: how we can make the best of this in a foreign policy sense and encourage people to come here to the Met.”