“Fitting In”: A review of the Islamic section at the AUB Museum

Ibrahim Kombarji
Staff Writer

Almost one hundred and fifty years ago, General Cesnola donated a collection of artifacts to AUB. This was the starting point that led to the opening of the AUB museum and later its growth until the latest renovation done eleven years ago with the introduction of the Islamic section.

The objects in this section are displayed in a niche of the museum. They are numbered and placed beside one another conserving a relatively small ‘breathing space’ between them. All these objects form an ensemble that is collectively labeled “The Islamic Period”. It appears that this ensemble is divided into five smaller clusters formed by objects of the same type and which could then be read in relation to each other.

The most remarkable cluster consists of five colored and glazed chunks from a 10 centimeter cladding, which are decorated by blue, black, yellow and green vegetal and geometric patterns. These pieces were originally parts of one of the doors of the Dome of the Rock before its restoration in 1853. These pieces were gathered by Frederick Bliss, son of Daniel Bliss – founder of AUB, who later donated them to the university.

They are considered as the highlight of the Islamic collection in the museum and as such the anecdotes behind their ‘exceptional’ acquisition are proudly illustrated under the objects. Additionally, an original photograph of the door is somehow surprisingly printed on a window curtain located closeby.

This approach of displaying background information on the provenance of the objects is used earlier on in the museum near the archeological findings of the ‘El Ghassil’ dig site. However, in the latter, the provenance information is shown on an orange wall as opposed to being displayed on a curtain as in the case of the Dome of the Rock.

The central cluster is a series of thirty-five predominantly turquoise tiles of similar dimensions that are displayed on two relatively small walls facing each other. Unlike most of the other showcased pieces in the museum, the ones in this cluster are not concealed behind any glass, which provides the visitor with a more intimate experience of the objects. For instance, the visitor can more closely compare and contrast the colors, periods, and provenance of the tiles.

Overall, the museum exhibits a wide range of objects “tracing man’s progress”, according to the AUB Museum website, in the region from the Early Stone Age to the Islamic period. It seems that the museum officials were inclined to follow a thematic approach to display the different artifacts within the museum. When it comes to modes of display, the Islamic section follows the same methodology as the rest of the sections by using boxes, glass shelves and numbered objects.The museum’s narrative is shaped, among others, by its modes of display discussed above.  The way the objects are displayed influences how the objects are read.

In the Islamic section, the inconsistencies in the way the objects are displayed have naturally led to an unsmooth navigation throughout. Like most museums, the AUB one is based on a series of donations that inevitably do not all fit together. The role of the curator is then to frame these objects within one narrative. Nonetheless, the AUB museum is different from many other museums. It is a university museum that is set in an educational framework. In such a particular setting, the museum needs to mainly play a didactic role.

This role manifests itself through the interactions of the various parties involved with the museum. Such parties are the donors, university administrators, curators, tour guides, reviewers and visitors. For example, visiting the museum is part of the curriculum of some of the courses offered in the university. Similarly, the museum activities are educationally curated. Also, the tour guides are academics with extensive knowledge about the themes of the museum and beyond. While the Islamic section of the AUB museum does not necessarily appear as a smooth addition to the museum due to the lack of consistent narrative and display technique, it has the potential to reconfigure itself beyond the didactic role and provide AUB with the platform for new discourses on Islamic art.

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