Review of the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands

Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text and photos by Neal Rosenau

You know from the moment you set eyes on it that you are in a different place from where you’ve been before.  Whether you arrive from the city street or from another part of the museum,  when you enter through the distinctive white Turkish marble portals, you are someplace memorably different.  And it is beautiful.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has re-opened its galleries of Islamic art, re-imagined and redesigned over eight years, renovated, newly-built and reconstructed,  and now comprehensively named the “New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.”  They are a visual feast, an invitation to new learning, and a photographic delight.

The Met has 12,000 objects in its collections from this part of the world, 1,200 of them are on public display in the 15 new galleries, with plans to rotate the more light-sensitive items every three months. The collection’s geographic origins range from a center in Iran and Syria east to India and Bangladesh and west to Italy and Spain.  They cover a time span from the seventh century AD to an exquisite Moroccan Courtyard created on-site in 2011 by artisans from the city of Fez. (The Naji Brothers lived six months in New York while they incised beautiful patterns deep in plaster arches and made an exquisite new set of tileworks for the walls.  You can see them at work in a video on the Met’s website at http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/collections/curatorial-departments/isl/installations/building-the-moroccan-court).

The display glistens, glows and invites you through every doorway and around every turn.  What works here is not just the pieces of art, but how they are shown.  Exquisite carpets are on display both on raised floor platforms and hung on the walls, the more delicate ones behind glass or plexiglass.  Thematic displays are arranged in cases with low-reflecting glass and fiber optic lighting that makes highlights shimmer and clearly reveals objects for eyes and cameras.  Small images – such as paintings or pages of books – are well-lit and invite close study because the museum provides Egyptian stools that allow a visitor to sit and lean in for a good view.  (Remember to bring your own magnifying glass, since none are provided in these galleries.)

 

What little most Americans know of this part of the world most likely comes through news of modern wars and conflicts rather than extensive travel and careful study.  So here we have a great opportunity to bring fresh eyes to a large and hugely-important part of our world; to enjoy rare beauty as we learn new names, history and artistic styles; and to come to fresh understandings and appreciation.

Plan to come to the New Galleries more than once, first to get an overview and lay-of-the-land, then for a closer look and to discover treasures you undoubtedly missed before.  These 15 galleries are like a complete museum in themselves, a rich addition to the Met’s encyclopedic collections.

If you hope to take pictures in the new galleries, you are allowed; Met rules prohibit use of cameras in special exhibits, but these galleries are part of the museum’s regular collection, so click away.  The rules: no tripods or monopods and no flash.  For those preparing for camera club competitions (PSA rules allow no photos of sculptures, for instance) you should be able to create some good architecture shots, close-ups, and images of people looking at the art (I’m hoping to work on additions to my own theme, punningly named “Regarding Art,” a study of how people look at objects in museums).

As a regular museum-goer, my request and recommendation to photographers is 1) be considerate and 2) be discreet.  A snap-shooter or serious photographer, frankly, can be a pain in the butt for others trying to walk through a gallery or hoping to get a good look at a piece of art.  Keep those other viewers in mind when you start to set up a shot of your friend  admiring that tile wall or a particularly-beautiful armor helmet or a tight shot of an intricate ceramic piece.  The Met is quite generous and considerate in letting us take pictures; so don’t screw it up.  Again, turn off the flash, leave the tripod home, and get creative with the light that’s available.  (Keep in mind:  if you can’t get the shot you think you want, maybe you don’t really need it.)

On the subject of light: The New Galleries are arranged around a central space in which daylight enters through beautifully-screened windows.  That central area is the open second floor space under a skylight above the  Roman Courtyard on the museum’s first floor.  The windows are covered with intricate Middle Eastern window screens (turned wood pieces called mashrabiyya screens).  They are works of art themselves.  The idea is to let light come in but not so intensely as to damage the art.  The rest of the lighting – either from special spotlights in the ceiling or those almost-magical fiber optic fixtures in the cases – has been beautifully set to accent what we came here to see.

There is no added fee to enter the New Galleries; it’s all part of the general cost of admission to the Met.

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