What would you like to see in an exhibition on Islam? I asked this question to a warden in one of Britain’s prominent museums. The warden had worked within the institution for decades, guarding the artworks, speaking to visitors, navigating the public that visit the collections, so their institutional memory of the museum was profound; and also occupied the space as a Muslim. Yet, when asked this question, the warden said they wished to see an exhibition that would really explore ‘Islam’ and ‘Art’, as this was something the warden had yet to see in all their time working on the exhibition floor. Why did this answer surprise me? Was it the fact that the museum in question had a reference point of Islam in its recent history? Since the 2000s, there had been two exhibitions in which Islam was heavily, explicitly referenced. Yet, this staff member, with their daily experience on the gallery floor, over decades, as a Muslim, voiced that they had not seen a show that explored Islam. 

It speaks volumes to the way museums have versed themselves in presenting on Islam, yet, seemingly an Islam that is far removed from the Muslims that practice it as their faith – as their worldview. What and who have been cast as the experts of the museum logic of Islam? Are the historical actors who have helped define and continue to inform the Islam of the museum, ignorant to the Islam of Muslims? The British Museum’s long serving curator, Venetia Porter, in her latest title as curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East art, speaks of the term ‘Islamic Art’ as ‘very reductive’. She emphasises that the term ‘was created by western scholars and to a certain extent we are stuck with that now’. Porter is speaking about her 2021 curated exhibition at the British Museum, ‘Reflections: Contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa’ – that a categorising focus on the geographical elements allows for ‘more flexibility’ rather than using this idea of ‘Islamic art’. 

This overt resignation of ‘Islamic Art’ being a problematic category, from an institutional dialect may seem like some serious decolonial street cred. But to then confidently use something like geographical location as being a solution to the problem is at the heart of these consistent phases of orientalising orientalism that has been flourishing in museums over the last few decades. In fact, it is representative of an institutionalised spin-cycle that has sought to continuously attempt to re-energise the framing of ‘Islam’ in the museum over the last century, but largely creating stagnation instead. The displays and framings of today are hardly different to that of the early twentieth century, when ‘Islamic Art’ in the museum grew its confidence as a category. It is always pushed and pulled between re-inventions of focus on ‘geography’ or the ‘pre-modern’ then back to ‘geography’. Porter’s own space that she occupies in the British Museum has seen discursive changes, from once called the Department of Oriental, to the Department of Asia – but how do these discursive shifts really impact or innovate on the framing of Islam in the museum? Is ‘Islam’ in the museum just one long continued dance with the spectre of Islam in relation to the Christian/secular worldview? The very worldview that formed this idea of the museum as an authoritative societal meaning-making and cultural compartmenting organism.

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