Geneva’s Musée Ariana (museum of ceramics and glass) is currently showing an exhibition of their collection of ceramics from around the „Islamic“ world:
Terres d’Islam – l’Ariana sort de ses reserves II: http://www.ville-ge.ch/ariana/index.php?content=18.104.22.168.1.1.&id_eve=1329&langue=frs
In many ways, it is a conventional exhibition, highlighting a fine collection of Medieval Iranian ceramic, some Ottoman and some lusterware from Iran and Syria, but mainly from Spain, both Islamic and post-Reconquista. It is beautifully presented, together with some interesting examples of European pottery that show clear inspiration by Islamic art and a very interesting small collection of Meybod ceramics, assembled by the anthropologist Micheline Centlivres during her fieldwork in Iran.
But what is particularly interesting with this exhibition, is that it is the first attempt I have seen of seriously addressing some controversies that inevitably surround collections of non-European artifacts in European museums. The Ariana’s collection largely consists of legacies and donations made to the museum by private people. And these were collectors, travelers, archaeologists, adventurers who liked to bring exceptional pieces with them from their adventures in far-away places. Hardly anybody asked any questions about provenance of these objects. Often, they had passed through the hands of a long row of art and antiquities dealers, often they came from illicit excavations. And since the market for beautiful objects was seemingly insatiable, objects were especially produced and restored to satisfy European tastes.
The Ariana decided to take apart certain restored pieces in order to show, how “complete” objects were produced from multiple shards that all came from different pieces. Leaving all controversy apart, one cannot help admiring the ingenuity of these past restorers whose practice was so different from museum restorers of today. What they created were in fact, the illusion of perfect Islamic artefacts, an idea of what Islamic art was, rather than any past art historical or archaeological reality.
Here is a photo of a “de-restored” lustre vessel:
This open approach to the museum’s own collection is what makes this show so rewarding. When it comes to the doubtful, even sometimes dubious provenance of some objects, most museums prefer not to address this issue at all. It is a fact that only few objects present in our collections actually came from regular excavations and still fewer came from excavations with a division policy (a written agreement on how artifacts were to be divided between excavating country/institution and the country where the excavation took place). Most objects can be assumed to have been bought from local art and antiquities dealers and originally come from illegal excavations. The loss of all contextual information makes them useless in an archaeological sense, although they might be visually attractive. Due to their “lost identity”, such objects are often called “orphan objects” and occasionally fierce discussions have flared up as to how to handle these objects, should they form part of public collections or should they be banned.
Researchers like archaeologist Oscar Muscarella, a specialist on ancient Iran and former research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have written critically about museums’ acceptance of objects of doubtful provenance and even forgeries (particularly in The Lie became Great. The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, published in 2000). Muscarella’s book included a list of objects of dubious provenance in public and private collections and was naturally not too well received by the museum world. Neither did it open up any meaningful debate on the subject. And yet, it could still prove one step on a necessary road to take in the future. Ideally, museums and critical researchers would work together and start a discussion about the role of collections and museums in creating art history and myths. The exhibition at Musée Ariana gives one a glimpse of hope.