A recent work trip to the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus at Semenyih led to a stop over on Kuala Lumpur, and this in turn allowed a quick visit to one of Malaysia’s greatest cultural institutions, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (Muzium Kesenian Islam Malaysia) (IAMM).
The IAMM opened in 1998 in a stunning, purpose-built museum that combines inside and outdoor spaces to great effect, drawing in beautifully evocative ways on natural light. The galleries, on two floors, are open plan, flowing into each other almost seamlessly, but still, the architecture provides rhythms and sequences that provide a clear structure to the various sections, subtly supported by minimal wall text, and not least by differently coloured domes that add to the profusion of natural light.
This effect is very much magnified through the use of the most wonderful range of pastel shades throughout the interior, especially in the domes and oculi that allow natural light to illuminate much of the Museum, and of course, the decoration of the domes offers a great opportunity to showcase floral and arabesque designs, thus recalling some of the exhibits below. The experience for the viewer takles a while to sink in, but arguably, what this building achieves is in creating a background that recalls core recurrent aesthetic characteristics of Islamic art in a way that complements the exhibits.
The works on display are organised first and foremost by types of artefacts, but within this organisation there then follows an emphasis on geographical origins. The museum offers no narrative about the history of Islam, and places all the emphasis on the objects themselves, foregrounding the aesthetic experience of the viewer through arranging the objects in beautifully – and carefully – curated display cases. All of the objects are behind glass, and the steady rhythm of the display cases adds to the aesthetics of the museum, with its emphasis on open spaces, free circulation and light, light and light again (and obviously, the display cases also help with stabilising the objects and controlling environmental factors). It’s a very stylised environment that contrasts quite sharply with the approach adopted by other specialist institutions dedicated to the display of Islamic Arts. Take, for example, the comparison to Jean Nouvel’s Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris, with its emphasis on Islamic design, or the Louvre’s new Islamic Arts Galleries with their very different look and curating; one of the differences between these approaches is surely due to location as in Kuala Lumpur, the Museum sits opposite a working – and spectacular- Mosque, the Masjid Negara, so the Museum becomes a repository for exceptional artefacts and leaves the interpretation to the viewer.
The collection is arranged according to such themes as architecture, Qur’ans and Manuscripts, Jewellery, Arms & Armour, Textiles, Living with Wood, Coins & Seals, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glasswork and while there are unexpected little gems in each of the sections, my focus in this blog post will be on the Qur’an & Manuscripts section and my particular favourite, Architecture and architectural models.The Qur’an &Manuscripts Galleries follow the aesthetic principle of the Museum by displaying a variety of objects, carefully but sparsely labelled, in individual glass cases, which allows the visitor to weave through the displays and wander between the books. Of course, it gets you itching to touch the books and turn the pages- you can see why they are in glass cases!- but the movement around the gallery becomes almost circuular, almost clockwise, as the displays are not arranged chronologically but in such a way as to showcase particularly visually striking examples of the Qur’an. Any of the books showcased here are every bit as beautiful as the most lavishly illuminated medieval manuscripts produced in Europe, and what is striking are the similarities rather than the differences between Christian and Islamic manuscripts.
But then something interesting happens- as the visitor wanders round the gallery, taking in sample after sample of glorious texts, the display changes from copies of the Qur’an to a much wider variety of texts, radiating from the spiritual text underpinning the world view of its readers to encompassing the publications springing from it. Here come the wonderful texts on medicine, on geography, on plants that were so coveted by Western collectors, both for the beauty of the objects and the scholarship of the texts. The narrative that emerges from these galleries is controlled by movement of the visitor and guided only very subtly by labels, and masterfully done.
The highlight of the museum for me, though, was the architecture section; given the wonderful space of the museum, which is an architectural gem in its own right, expectations were high for this section and it did not disappoint. The displays ranged from a focus of architectural ornaments such as tiles and carvings to the display of an Ottoman Room from Damascus dating to the 19th century to a gallery entirely devoted to wonderfully detailed models of key Islamic buildings. Models! Great, architectural modles wonderfully detailed, constructed to scale and displayed in clusters that allowed the viewer to trace architectural trends and developments both geographically and by type. Some of the models, such as that of the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, or that of the holiest site of Islam, Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram, are not easily accessible to a Western – and in my case female – viewer, so the opportunity to study these wonderful models was fabulous.
So, next time you find yourself in Kuala Lumpur: don’t forget a visit to the IAMM.
For more images, have a look at my Flickr album by clicking here.
Dr Gabriele Neher @gabrieleneher