Is this the oldest computer in London? The beautiful gold disc in the British Museum’s Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World doesn’t look much like a laptop but it fulfilled many functions of a computer. It is an astrolabe made in Kurdistan in 1240, and while its principal function was to plot the positions of the constellations, it’s believed that these complex devices had a thousand potential applications, including measuring time, height and distance. Today, this astrolabe stands as an example of extraordinary scientific invention and exquisite craftsmanship; it also illustrates the importance of travel to the medieval Islamic world. As a result, it encapsulates several of the themes so brilliantly delivered by the museum’s newest gallery.
While its predecessor was tucked away at the back of the museum, the Islamic collection has now been given a more prominent location and consists of two vast rooms filled with around 1,600 artefacts from across the historic orbit of Islam. Spanning the seventh century to present day, this gallery has around 30 per cent more objects and an overarching narrative that is richer, more complex and far more ambitious. “A soaring miracle of art,” applauded The Guardian, shortly after it opened; “breathtaking in scope,” chimed the Financial Times. “[This] could transform many people’s understanding of what Islam and Islamic culture means.”
Dr Zeina Klink-Hoppe is one of six curators who designed the gallery – a four-year project. She moves between exhibits with contagious enthusiasm, alighting on easily missed items, relating their import with erudite delight.
“We decided to use the term ‘Islamic’ to talk about regions where, at some time or other, Islam was the most prevalent religion,” she explains. “[So] it’s not just religious art, it’s cultural, too. Meaning these items are not always made by Muslims for Muslims, it’s more about a wider material culture.” This means a geographical range that includes West Africa, South-East Asia and Europe, as well as North Africa and the Middle East. “That allows us to have very flexible borders broken by trade and pilgrimage.”
The gallery was funded by the Malaysia-based Albukhary Foundation, which wanted to offer a narrative of Islamic art that stretched beyond geometry and calligraphy, instead showing what British Museum director Hartwig Fischer described earlier this year as “Islam as a global phenomenon – one of the great spiritual, religious, intellectual and social phenomena of world history”. This is a central part of the story: Islam did not exist in isolation from the world but was interdependent on it, shaped by its connections to the past and an exchange of ideas with the civilisations around it. In this context, something like an astrolabe was an essential piece of equipment, used to plot the position of Mecca and the time of day in different parts of the world.
“Islam arrived into a very bustling part of the world that had a long tradition of trade,” says Klink-Hoppe. Archaeological remains from the ancient Persian port city of Siraf give a sense of the scope of this early globalisation, with elephant tusks from Sri Lanka, Chinese porcelain and, thrillingly, Viking silver. Other exhibits draw out connections between Europe and South-East Asia, while Klink-Hoppe believes that future displays will look at the Muslim diaspora to Australia and the US. But it’s not just the breadth of artefacts that has changed; design, too, has turned this space into one of the British Museum’s most spectacular galleries. Stanton Williams Architects have created a sense of calm through clever use of light.
“In Islamic architecture, light plays a very central role,” says architect Paul Williams. “Light imbues a space with a sense of spirituality and the divine. The question was, how do you bring that into a gallery that was designed in 1885 while balancing the environmental and conservational demands of the objects?”
Inspired by the design and atmosphere of a courtyard, the gallery’s reopened skylights (blocked for decades) allow light to fall directly into the central area. Five beautiful decorative screens by Saudi artist Ahmad Angawi act as diffusers that channel the way the sunlight falls at different times of the day, sometimes highlighting ceramic tiles, at other times striking dazzling metals. There are window seats beneath the screens to provide quiet contemplation.
“It’s very subtle but it reflects the importance of daylight in Islamic architecture and is a fairly profound statement,” Williams says.
The gallery’s second room is much darker, which brought different opportunities. The curatorial team were able to display rarely seen textiles and works on paper, which are under strict controls about the amount of light they can be exposed to; the curators created a rotating series of displays for these pieces. It also meant the gallery could showcase everyday items of furnishing and clothing like a colourful wedding dress from Yemen and school ties from Soviet-era Turkmenistan, made using traditional techniques but featuring the hammer and sickle.
Given the collection’s range, it’s difficult to pick out individual highlights. There’s everything from a box of tools that once belonged to a Persian goldsmith to the legacies of great empires, such as an intricate ceramic Ottoman Iznik dish (1650) and metalwork from Egypt’s 13th-century Mamluk dynasty. Contemporary acquisitions include Lebanese artist Raed Yassin’s Chinese-style porcelain vases covered with images of the civil war in Lebanon, and 21 Stones, a new commission from British artist Idris Khan inspired by the Stoning of the Devil ceremony during Hajj.
Other important items are easy to overlook, such as a battered metal flask that was taken to Mecca by English writer and explorer Richard Burton, who was one of the first Westerners to make the Hajj, having disguised himself as a Muslim for the journey. Indeed, the gallery does not shy away from controversial issues. From South-East Asia, there’s a range of items relating to the region’s consumption of betel; musical instruments that demonstrate how music has long been part of Islamic cultural life; and several examples of figurative art, suggesting the depiction of sentient beings has not always been taboo.
“This tile is from the exterior of a mosque,” says Klink-Hoppe, pointing to a glazed frieze featuring birds against a botanical background from 1308. “At some point the heads of all the birds were chiselled away. But when it was installed, that wasn’t an issue.”
Pushing the boundaries of understanding was entirely the point, claims Tuan Syed Mohamad Albukhary, director of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia and board member of the Albukhary Foundation. He says the aim was for a “radical transformation” and “innovative reinterpretation” of the collection, creating a narrative of Islamic culture unlike anything else in Europe, possibly the world. This bold new approach, as museum director Fischer told the FT, seeks to reflect “development, continuity, breaks, [and] conflicting views of Islam and [the] large reality of interaction with other faiths”, to make “a complex history much clearer – without reducing the complexity.”