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Islamic Art and the Museum – The construction and problematic use of the Islamic art discourse within museums

Author: Jolene Persoon

Islamic Art and the Museum

The construction and problematic use of the Islamic art discourse within museums

C:\Users\Toshiba C50D\Downloads\20151006_144956.jpg

Diaspora blues

So, here you are

too foreign for home

too foreign for here.

never enough for both.

– Ijeoma Umebinyuo, “Questions for Ada” 2015

Table of Content


1. Theory and Methodology

2. The Field

2.1 An Early History

2.2 Perception

2.3 Gaps and Overlap between Fields

2.4 Exhibitions, Museums and Scholars

3. ‘Islamic art’ deconstructed

3.1 The Religious aspect

3.2 The Time aspect

3.3 The Space aspect

3.4 The Unity aspect

4. Taxonomy choices

5. New Challenges



List of illustration

Photograph by author (2015). Bowl with Arabic inscription in Kufi style, Samarqand Uzbekistan or Nishapur Iran, 10th century. Collection Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin, Inv. nr. 1.26/60.

Figure 1: Fletcher, B. (1954). The Tree of Architecture [Illustration]. Retrieved 30 July 2016 from “A History or Architecture on the Comparative Method for the Student, Craftsman, and Amateur”. 16th ed. London, B.T. Batsford Ltd.

Figure 2: Gombrich, E. (1989). Chapter 7 [Photo]. Retrieved 30 July 2016 from “The Story of Art”. 15th ed. London, Phaidon.


In the introduction the topic, the research question, and the value of this research will be introduced. Thereafter the topic is framed and the outline of the other chapters is presented.

The Taj Mahal in India, blue ceramic Iznik tiles, a dish illuminated with calligraphy, a glass bottle with a coat of arms; all this is considered ‘Islamic’ art. Such artifacts, can be seen whenever one enters a museum and walks to the department of Islamic Arts, if there is any. Yet how similar are a tenth century manuscript made in Moghul India, a sixteenth century Mamluk fountain and a seventeenth century Ottoman mosque inspired by the design of a Christian church? Islamic art is a broad term, covering all materials, all disciplines, several continents and many centuries.

The study of Islamic art and architecture is a relatively new field in history of art, and was constructed and forged at the end of the nineteenth century by European (and later American) scholars after interest in the field started to rise. During that same time, the first museums started to create separate spaces or departments for artifacts now known as Islamic art. Since it was a field constructed by Western culture, concepts can and did change, both due to improved scholarship and political or societal changes. Museums evolved and their departments evolved as well, from changing names and panels to splitting up in several departments. Prominent museums have been altering their Islamic art galleries in the last decade and more and more is written about Islamic art in its postorientalist sense. This thesis is therefore relevant as there are several different voices and practices in the field as well as in society. This thesis aims to show the problems and debates that are caused by the use and definition of ‘Islamic art’ as it is a constructed term that has shown to be more problematic in use in recent decades. This leads to the main research question of this research:

What problems does the term of Islamic art cause within the Islamic art museum discourse?

This research question will be answered with the help of several sub questions, each one somewhat corresponding with a chapter in this thesis.

  • Is there a relation between changes in Islamic art departments in museums and the changing scope of Islamic art historiography?
  • How is the definition of ‘Islamic art framed by religion, space, time, and unity?
  • How is the Islamic art discourse reflected in its museum position?
  • What are the current debates in Islamic art historiography?

Every research brings its limitations and has its own framework. Both limitations of the research as well as a narrowing down and framing of the subject are explained hereafter. Some articles question the term ‘Islamic art’ and aim to find a more suitable concept. Although extremely interesting and relevant, this research covers mainly the past development and current situation and will not focus on possible outcomes in the future. The scope of this research is from the point of view of the academics in the field and its interaction with museums. Even though museums are visited by the public and public opinion can change the course of museums, this research will not try to make a relation between the interpretation and display of Islamic art and the public’s view on the subject. Due to the size and time limit of this research, is it not plausible to have a close look at all museums that have Islamic art in their collections. Countries where Islam is the predominate religion, or countries where Islamic art originated from, have also started to erect Islamic art museums or departments. Yet the motivation behind these museums is different, since it can be linked to their own past, identity, and heritage. Nevertheless, the display is often based on traditional museum study practices which makes it similar again to museums in the West. This paper analyses the term ‘Islamic art’, yet is bounded by the vocabulary available to address the topic, resulting in the use of ‘Islamic lands’ throughout the thesis to address the geographical areas where objects considered Islamic art originate from. Names and places are either transliterated or translated since many authors and museums do this themselves as well as that the multilingual use of certain terms would result in an inconsistent use[1].

This thesis has five chapters, starting with a chapter about the theory and methodology used. The second chapter provided information about the field encompassing a brief history of collecting and displaying, the perception of Islamic art, and some information about the academic field and the museum world of Islamic art. The art narrative in its Orientalist discourse “… is not simply a means of viewing the present but also of understanding that present in an ongoing relationship with a past …” . Chapter two is therefore rather large, since in order to understand the motives of current decisions one has to understand the origin and the developments. Chapter three takes a closer look at the term ‘Islamic’ art has how it has been used by academics and museums. Four aspects of the term are analyzed; namely the religious, the time and space aspects and the perception of unity or division of the field. Chapter four explores types of museums Islamic art is exhibited in and their preferred taxonomy choices. The last chapter highlights some of the new challenges in the field such as postorientalist, new modes of display and an increase in participation of inhabitants of Islamic lands. The thesis ends with a conclusion part, answering the research question mentioned above.