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Deconstructing Arab Lands Galleries at The Met

February 2, 2012

Especially at museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m a bit of a “streaker” in terms of how I take in the museum. I rarely read text, and I just like to look around at what’s on display. If something catches my eye and I want to know more, I might read its description. I never walk out of these sorts of galleries feeling like the people who designed it had some sort of “thesis” or idea that they wanted to impart to me about the subject matter. That being said, I spent a little more time experiencing The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here are my impressions:

  • The main idea of the exhibit is to show how the spread of Islam had a widespread effect on the art and culture of Middle East countries (and even beyond) from the 7th to 19th Centuries.
  • The exhibit conveys this through large blocks of text mounted on the wall. The text is very easy to understand and some of the captions next to the pieces point out how the particular piece relates to Islam and about the techniques used at the time.
  • The content of the gallery is organized geographically and by period, with areas of overlap. It roughly starts with the earliest Muslim influences on art in Iran and Central Asia and ends with the most recent Islamic art in South Asia, Spain and North Africa, giving you a sense of the spread of Islam and its influence on art.
  • The designers have interpreted a heavy influence from Islam through calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts, and treasured objects like urns, jewelry, and tapestries.
  • I felt the design of the galleries was mostly effective. There’s a definite logical flow to the content, but the gallery itself does not force that on you if you just want to browse. I presume an audio tour or guided tour gives you better cues as to how to move through the galleries. For me, I had to study the map to determine what direction I should move in.
  • A few very special rooms differed greatly from most of the other galleries and made the experience special. Specifically, the Carpets, Textiles and the Greater Ottoman World and The Damascus Room. The former gallery is immediately breathtaking because of its high, vaulted and adorned ceiling and a long carpet running the length of the gallery under (amazingly even) lighting. The Damascus Room sets the tone with the sound of a fountain, which according to the interactive display, was used for both practical and aesthetic reasons.
  • Lighting was critical to this exhibit and was carefully planned. This was especially true in the tapestry room and the area with the manuscripts. The lights were very well disguised and lit everything well. Another effective design element was the use of stools in front of the illuminated manuscripts. After a long day of walking through the museum, seeing those stools in front of the cases was incredibly inviting. You could sit down and have something interesting to lean over and look at.
  • The only thing I would change about the exhibit is to make the map of the region a recurring element. There’s a very large map outside the entrance to the gallery, but I think it could be incorporated into each room so that the visitor gets a better sense of how the effect of Islam on art and culture spreads geographically.
  • Design in The Metropolitan Museum of Art takes a supporting role to the art on display. I think everyone would agree that this is a sound decision.
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