A century of Islamic art for all

Nevine El-Aref , Saturday 27 Nov 2010

The centenary of Cairo's Museum of Islamic Art took place earlier this week.

To the slightly incongruous beat of a military march, hundreds of government officials, prominent figures, writers, journalists and photographers assembled on Monday in the garden of the Manial Palace to celebrate the centenary of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA).

It was a glamorous occasion that could have rivalled events at the palace when it was a royal residence. The street outside the main entrance gate was crowded with security guards jostling shoulders with guests in tuxedos or elegant gowns as they emerged from their cars, leaving them to be parked by attendants wearing a uniform of blue trousers and yellow shirts. The mood of the quiet and serene gardens and the palace entrance was enhanced by blue, flower- shaped lamps.

Soft Oriental music filled the evening air of the spacious palace garden, where the Fursan Al-Sharq (Knights of the East) Modern Dance company and the National Folk Music band performed a variety of dances illustrating religious dancing in the styles of ancient Egypt and the Mawlawi dance.

For those not able to visit the MIA for a special showing earlier in the day, a 15-minute documentary film was screened showing glimpses of the recent restoration work at the MIA. Culture Minister Farouk Hosni expressed his pleasure at what had been achieved, and spoke about the development project carried out by the ministry to upgrade Egypt's museums and the forward plans to build new ones, as well as the procedures taken to safeguard all the museums in Egypt and their priceless collection.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), delivered a speech on the SCA's restoration of the MIA. It has taken eight years to rehabilitate the museum's galleries and showcases and to restore the display scenario of its precious collection. Hawass distributed special awards to those who had sacrificed their time and effort to preserve the valuable heritage of Islamic art.

Earlier in the evening Mrs Suzanne Mubarak held her own celebration for the MIA's 100th anniversary. At the request of Hosni, Mrs Mubarak paid a special visit to the museum where she toured the galleries and admired the 2,300 priceless artefacts. She said she was delighted with the work that had been achieved at the MIA. During her visit Hawass presented Mrs Mubarak with a luxury edition of a book celebrating the MIA's centennial and its official guide book, as well as a paper knife engraved with the museum's logo.

Now that refurbishment is complete, would-be visitors to the museum need wait no longer to roam the spacious galleries showcasing its wooden, metal, ceramic, glass, rock crystal and textile objects from across the Islamic world. Following years of neglect, the Museum of Islamic Art has undergone comprehensive rehabilitation not only of its building and interior design, but also of its exhibition design and displays. Before it closed in 2003 the galleries were dark and dusty and the showcases were overstuffed with 100,000 objects.

"Restoring the Museum of Islamic Art was an ambitious and challenging task that illustrates Egypt's commitment to preserving one of the country's Islamic institutions, in addition to its Pharaonic and Coptic heritage," Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The renovation project has been a lengthy and dedicated one. "The restoration of the Museum of Islamic Art is an extraordinary achievement, executed by some 15 specialists, 20 SCA restorers and 150 workmen with all the work executed to the highest international standards," Hawass said in an interview with the Weekly. "Now that the museum meets the international standards set out by the International Committee of Museums, it is in a position to compete with its counterparts in Europe and America," he said, adding: "Following its reopening, the museum will once again stand as proudly as it ever did."

Hawass said reopening the MIA sent a political massage to the whole globe showing that Islam was not a religion of terror as some tried to put about, but that it supported the arts and encouraged skills and crafts. "This is really shown in every object on display," he said.

The MIA was first opened in 1881 with an initial display of 111 objects gathered from mosques and mausoleums across Egypt. Its first home was in the arcades of the mosque of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah. Because of the rapid increase in the size of the collection, however, a new building was constructed in the courtyard of the mosque in 1883. In 1899 construction began on a building in Bab Al-Khalq, a stone's throw from the centre of Islamic Cairo, that would give the museum its own space. This opened its doors in 1903 with a collection of 3,154 objects. Since then the museum has become the main abode for the national collection of Islamic art, which had reached that huge number of 100,000 objects by 2003.

That was when the Ministry of Culture launched its comprehensive restoration project for the museum in an attempt to reinstate its original function and grandeur. The masterplan for the renovation and the new exhibition design was drawn up by French designer and museographer Adrien Gardère in cooperation with the Islamic Department of the Louvre Museum in Paris, which has advised on the reorganisation of the museum's collections.

The restoration places the museum's main entrance at its original point on Port Said Street, and from there visitors first encounter an introductory gallery that presents Islamic arts and the Muslim countries of the world and their locations in a mixed display made up of panels, maps and objects from the collection. Visitors will also take a look into the geography of historic Cairo and the early Islamic city of Fustat, the oldest Islamic settlement in Egypt.

The MIA is divided into two large wings; the first is devoted to the chronological exhibition of Islamic artefacts taken in the main from monuments in historic Cairo, just a few steps away from the museum. This wing will follow a broadly chronological approach in its presentation of the collection, progressing through the Umayyad, Abbasid, Tulunid, Fatimid, Ayubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods while also including various thematic displays.

The second wing displays materials from other countries in the Islamic world. These include calligraphy; manuscripts; ceramics; mosaics; textiles; gravestones; mashrabiya (latticed woodwork); wooden objects; metal and glass vessels; incense burners and caskets; pottery; metalwork and glass lamps dating from various periods in Islamic history. These objects are displayed according to both chronology and theme, provenance and material.

The renovated museum has state-of-the-art security and lighting systems, a fully-equipped restoration laboratory, a children's museum and a library.

Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, head of the museum department at the SCA, says one of the most impressive items on display is a Mamluk water fountain that has been renovated by Spanish restorer Eduardo Porta, who was also a member of the restoration team working on the tomb of Nefertari in Luxor's Valley of the Queens. The fountain, made of semi-precious stones, green onyx and coloured mosaic pieces, was originally bought for the Museum of Islamic Art in 1910 and placed in the museum garden. Owing to ill-use and faulty restoration of work carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, the fountain fell into disrepair and it is only now being properly restored. Porta described the fountain as unique in the world, and said it was one of the most important objects in the MIA.

Hawass told the Weekly that the overall museum restoration project had achieved three goals. It had brought light into the museum's galleries by enlarging the size of the windows; it had replaced old display cases with new state-of-the-art cases providing a far better display environment for the artefacts; and third, the project had reorganised the display of the collection and highlighted a successful example of international cooperation.

The work was carried out jointly with the Islamic Department of the Louvre in Paris and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which helped with the restoration of several larger items.

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