Thank you for sharing some of the issues you address in your own research and for your questions regarding the methodologies of displaying Islamic art and material culture in museums. You refer to ‘normative’ methods used, such as presenting works by medium, dynasty, or geography. Historically, installations and exhibitions of Islamic material have been organised primarily in the ways you describe, or — if more specific —  by a special topic such as a literary text or a religious focus (ie, Islam, the Qur’an, ‘Islamic ornament’). A popular go-to for installations of permanent collections was historically to arrange by medium (ie, ceramics, metalwork, arts of the book) or dynastic period (ie, Mamluks, Safavids, Ottomans, Mughals). Some places have also organised material by themes, and still others by a combination of some or all of these.

I would say the main factors behind how such collections and objects are organised are the content of the collections themselves (the scope of the material in terms of time/place of production, materials and techniques, and subject matter) and the theoretical or methodological approaches used by curators and/or institutions to interpret, display, and engage them. While there are Islamic collections in more than one national museum in London, for example, each presents its collections under a different mission. While the Victoria and Albert Museum was conceived as a museum of art and design meant to inspire ‘designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science,’ the British Museum is considered a museum of world history; the displays of the Islamic collections at these museums is thus meant to reflect the purpose of each institution. At the British Museum, my previous place of work, we worked as a curatorial team to prepare the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, a two-room gallery in which the vast Islamic collections of the museum were presented within a narrative framework that emphasised the complex and multi-layered nature of the Islamic world (or worlds) through objects and their connections to people. While the ‘spine’ of large cases populating the central length of both rooms follows a chronological hierarchy with geographical divisions, thematic cases line the walls to present more focussed narratives only touched upon in the centre displays (ie, collection history, belief and practice, figuration, the sciences, games, archaeological excavations, textiles, lustre technology, cross-cultural trade networks and transmissions, oral traditions, and more). In addition, there are areas dedicated to the display of light-sensitive works requiring rotation to allow for long-term preservation, such as the arts of the book, contemporary works on paper, and textiles from the ethnographic collections. Another space is reserved for special exhibitions that may bring together works from the museum’s Islamic or related collections in ways they might otherwise not be assembled. Adjacent to this area is a display table with ‘hands on’ objects designated for public handling under the supervision of British Museum volunteers. In addition to supplementary audio-visual elements and a dedicated website, there are ample opportunities to learn about the collections both in person and online.

More recently, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. reinstalled their Islamic collections thematically by the senses, an online glimpse of which can be accessed here. And then you have smaller collections, such as the one I now look after at the San Diego Museum of Art, where — at the current moment — it makes more sense to feature material by region, but where I would like to create a space that allows me to highlight intersections between places, times, and objects through a dedicated installation.

Ultimately, how Islamic visual culture is displayed depends on the collection that you have and the story or stories you wish to tell, as well as the message/s you hope to communicate to diverse audiences. These factors will guide your approach. If the collection is pretty comprehensive, I am personally inclined toward a more classic, teleological approach that follows a chronological/geographical hierarchy while still including areas focusing on themes or special topics that can more easily be changed or updated to reflect changing times, interests, and audiences. I would shy away from dynastic divisions as most people would not understand or benefit from them, and because they also suggest artistic production in a vacuum. No matter the conceptual framework, however, I would always want to engage inter- and multidisciplinary approaches to the interpretation and understanding of the material, including the ways in which viewers can engage the works both in person and virtually.

There are numerous sources that explore this topic further, a few of which I have included below, and you will also find several reviews of major reinstallations of Islamic collections in recent years online if you search by institution. There are also several recent articles and books on the topic of decolonisation in museums and the changing definitions of the global museum, many of which do not necessarily focus on Islamic art and material culture, but which should be considered as part of the whole picture (see, for example, Dan Hicks and Alice Proctor).

  • The British Museum. The Making of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World. London: British Museum Press, 2018.
  • Carey, Moya, and Margaret S. Graves, eds. Islamic Art HistoriographyJournal of Art Historiography, no. 6 (June 2012). See especially editors’ introduction and essay by Wendy Shaw.
  • Rosemary Crill and Tim Stanley, eds. The Making of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2006.
  • Benoît Junod, Georges Khalil, Stefan Weber, and Gerhard Wolf, eds. Islamic Art and the Museum: Approaches to Art and Archaeology of the Muslim World in the Twenty-First Century. London: Saqi Books, 2012.
  • Kassim, Sumaya. “The museum will not be decolonised.” Media Diversified (15 November 2017).
  • Jenny Norton-Wright, ed. Curating Islamic Art Worldwide: From Malacca to ManchesterHeritage Studies in the Muslim World Pallgrave Macmillian, 2020.
  • Vernoit, Stephen. Discovering Islamic Art: Scholars, Collectors and Collections, 1850–1950. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.