On the Upper floor of the British Museum, Rooms 42–43 house the Albukhary Foundation’s rooms. This cultural institution, founded by Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, is based in Kuala Lumpur and claims to be the largest in Asia dedicated to the arts, culture and heritage of the Islamic world.
These galleries in the British Museum offer a perspective to the Islamic World, with beautifully laid out displays and as they are off the main flow of visitors, the space is less crowded.
I had planned to go to listen to a talk about Tippu Tip by Stuart Laing at SOAS London. It turned out to be a full day for me of, amongst other things, an East African experience. Passing through the British Museum on my way to a talk at SOAS; Zanzibari artefacts seemed to call out ‘ look at me’.
It was good to join the Seminar for Arabian Studies at the British Museum.
Held annually the seminar focuses on the history and archaeology of the Arabian Peninsula . It was especially nice to meet up with Ali Al Mahrouqi on July 23rd, which is Oman’s ‘Renaissance Day’. He was attending on behalf of Oman’s Ministry of National Heritage and Culture and put up a Poster of the project he is working on, which includes areas in Adam which I enjoyed visiting with him last year.
At this years seminar Derek Kennet gave an overview on pre-historical sites in Wadi Andam and Axelle Rougeulle talking about the first season of excavation at Qalhat which was very interesting.
Walking into the Shah ‘Abbas exhibition in the British Museum’s Reading Room was almost a sense of ‘déjà vu’ as the very English Sir Robert Sherley & wife Teresia gaze down as they did in the Tate’s ‘Lure of the East’ exhibition last year .
This time they were not included because of the gorgeous costumes but for Robert Sherley’s role as Persian Ambassador from Shah ‘Abbas to various European Courts .
In 2007 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque which of course has a very Persian flavour to it with the style of Shah Abbas’s dynasty throughout the interior of the building.
As Sultan Qaboos seems to like Persian art he will enjoy his visit to Iran this month. Perhaps the visit by the Omani Minister of Tourism in May to Homs and other Iranian cities was a build up to this visit – one trusts that the current political uncertainty will not affect His Majesty’s visit.
I managed to get back and see the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum. The reading room in which it is held is of course an appropriate venue as Hadrian’s Pantheon inspired its dome. Timed tickets should have been a warning – the space was probably full to its designed capacity and it was a struggle to move at my pace and see the exhibits.
For me the outstanding impact was the representation of Hadrian throughout his rule – each artist created a sculpture of a man whom the “vir in via” must have been able to recognize has they walked past him. It was wonderful that among the marble, the curators included a written plea for support, from a foreign civilian living in northern England, to the region’s governor.
Perhaps the same man had touched a large amphora, found near Hadrian’s Wall, which was displayed along with an image of a shard mountain of 26million amphora. Later, walking along Bond Street, I was surprised to see a familiar shop name. ‘Bateel’ a shop selling Dates and Date products has a branch in Muscat. Amazingly they had set up close to where a company I was general manager with 25 years ago had a shop. My surprise was not really in seeing Bateel but, with a rental of probably GBP300,000+ per year, the extraordinary volume of dates they must sell to cover costs – probably Arab Embassies are ideal clients.
Evacuated from the British Museum; finding Muscat at Tate Britain – via the Victoria Line
The “lure of the east” exhibition dragged me down to the Tate Britain. The building is much like the Tardis– larger inside than outside and it does make me wonder at the expansive and educational vision of the Victorian wealthy compared to those today.
The exhibition, perhaps inspired by Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’, certainly makes the visitor an observer, not a participant. It perhaps argues against his overriding viewpoint. Sir Robert Shirley, who became an Ambassador for Shah Abbas, and the various British merchants who lived in the great trading cities of the Near East dressed in the current style of the country they lived in, speak volumes about their viewpoint. Details such as an artist, John Lewis, creating what could be a self-portrait of him at prayer in a Mosque and Shirley’s wife, Teresia, holding a pistol add to an alternative view.
Sir Robert Shirley, who was 19 when he started his work for the Persian Shah Abbas, stands well shaved, enrobed in Persian style garments. His cape could have been the inspiration for the floral design within the dramatic Safavid carpet in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat.
Elsewhere, in the gallery, I came across more reminders of Muscat; a watercolour by the Victorian artist Arthur Melville cited as being inspired by a cockfight in Muscat. The cocks have been lost to history and the vast Iwan framing the scene also been lost within the sands of Muscat, if it were more than an architectural frame for the birds fight in front.
While at the Tate, apart from enjoying the extraordinary collection of British art, people were running through the Duveen Galleries (empty of art incidentally) – perhaps referencing the Chinese Olympics.
Along the Victoria Line, I wanted to meet with Jessica Harrison-Hall who curates Chinese Ceramics at the British Museum. Regularly in Oman I come across a surprising quantity of Chinese Ceramic , and needed some advice. Up the stairs of the Great Court, flooded with visitors, and across to room 90. Press on the curator’s doorbell and was greeted with “we need to evacuate the building” . The slightly irritating tone in the background had been an evacuation signal! Fortunately, after extensive checking, the all clear was sounded and Jessica almost trumped the evacuation notice with “these are easy”; and of course, that’s why I knew she would be the ideal person to answer my queries.
Not all ceramic shards have a shiny glaze on both sides and today mine did not – I missed my opening into the Hadrian Exhibition – another day will be needed I think
I enjoyed a visit to Tate Britain during ‘The Lure of the East’ painting exhibition. The canvases, by British artists, included one of Sir Robert Shirley, an envoy between the Persian and British courts, looking quite splendid in Persian style garments; their colour and decoration being Safavid are in the same style as the carpet in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Remarkably I came across a watercolour by the Victorian artist’ Arthur Melville cited as being inspired by a cock fight in Muscat.
Another piece by him showing an interior with ‘Mashrabiya” was set in a section of the gallery screened with a Mashrabiya – a nice setting .
On the same day I had a meeting with Jessica Harrison-Hall the Curator of Chinese Ceramics at the British Museum. No sooner did I arrive but the door was opened with the instruction – “we need to evacuate the building”. Fortunately, it was only for about 40 minutes and she then very kindly dated some shards I had come across in various locations in Oman. The Hadrian exhibition will have to wait for another day.