Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld, a new exhibition at the History of Science Museum
provides a modern day interpretation on Islamic metalwork spanning the 11th to 16th centuries, with an accompanying online exhibition and contributions by the local community. The exhibition opens on the day that the History of Science Museum reopens its doors to the public Friday, 9 October 2020.
The exhibition will explore how the intersections of cultures across the Islamic world influenced the creation of this metalwork, some of the finest produced. Part of a national tour supported by Art Fund and in partnership with the Subject Specialist Network for Islamic Art and Material Culture, the exhibition features a stunning array of objects on loan from The Courtauld, many never seen outside of London before this tour. These include a delicate candlestick made to a precise size and weight, rare brass bowls inlaid with silver and a 14th century bucket for everyday use, all elaborately designed. They will be displayed alongside the History of Science Museums own world-class collection of scientific instruments from the Islamic World.
The exhibition will also examine the intricate designs and styles that made these metal pieces so renowned and imitated by civilisations around the globe. Signs of the zodiac, constellations, the planets and coats of arms all feature. Islamic metalwork is renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship and the skill behind this work will be showcased through on-screen content.
The highlight of the exhibition is a womans metal handbag, the only surviving example of its kind. It was made in the early 14th century in Mosul, northern Iraq for an important lady based in the courtly circles of the Ilkhanid dynasty. This handbag, known as the Courtauld Bag and decorated with images of eight musicians playing instruments, shows the incredible metalworking skills passed down through generations.
To ensure as many people as possible can experience the exhibition, the History of Science Museum has responded to the current climate by creating a full online exhibition that will also include objects and stories not seen in the physical exhibition. There will be modern Cultures in Conversation as the online exhibition will include input from visitors and social media. Visit www.hsm.ox.ac.uk/islamicmetalwork (to go live on 9 October).
The museum has taken a unique approach to the online exhibition by working with Oxford-based volunteers with a cultural connection to these objects, who provided their own perspective based on their personal and cultural knowledge. The volunteers came to the UK as forced migrants from countries including Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Sudan. For the online exhibition they will be sharing their own objects that build on and complement the objects from The Courtauld and the History of Science Museum. Many of the volunteers have been working with the museum for some time as part of a project called Multaka, which means meeting place in Arabic.
One volunteer, Jonathan Fruchter, has created an interactive digital programme through which online visitors can design their own Islamic inspired patterns. Jonathan said, I was amazed by the intricacy of the patterns of some of the objects. I decided to digitize the pattern on the handbag, and was inspired to create a symmetric-pattern-generating computer programme. The programme is based on the "type" of symmetry most common in Islamic art, and allows the user to design their own Islamic-influenced repetitive patterns with just a few lines and brush strokes. Mathematics is usually perceived as intimidating and very dry. I think that this exhibition is a great opportunity to share a bit of my knowledge and show people that maths can be beautiful and fun!
This approach provides a new way for visitors to understand and appreciate these objects. Moreover, the wealth of knowledge and understanding the volunteers bring has a lasting legacy: it is being added to the museums database and shared with the wider community through multi-lingual events, tours, blogs and displays, but most importantly the museums working practices have become more inclusive and collaborative.
Dr. Silke Ackermann, Director of the History of Science Museum, said: Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld gives us insight into the craft and the science of Islamic metalworking. Our interpretation of the exhibition beautifully reveals how ideas and stories have travelled across time and territory, language and medium. Work to create this exhibition took place through the COVID-19 pandemic and we had to repeatedly pivot as we largely communicated through a new medium online; it has certainly proved to be our most dynamic display yet. We are delighted by the contribution made by the Multaka volunteers and grateful for The Courtaulds generosity and their partnership this collaboration has been an absolute joy and we have learnt a huge amount in the process.
Dr Alexandra Gerstein, McQueens, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Courtauld said: We are thrilled to partner with Oxfords History of Science Museum on the Precious & Rare tour and to be the first exhibition on display when the museum reopens to the public. The exhibition provides an opportunity for people to experience and enjoy some of the most treasured art works from both The Courtauld and History of Science Museums collections and to find out more about their fascinating history.
The Cultures in Conversation online exhibition will include all the objects and stories from the physical exhibition, with opportunities to explore additional content and get close-up with more information. There will be videos offering behind the scenes access with the Curator and Multaka volunteers.