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Museum exhibitions offer a complex conundrum. While museum-goers walk through, looking at art and objects of extreme historical importance, the context of a piece’s creation is often reduced to a small plaque on the wall. This is an issue that Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, thinks a lot about. In this moving talk from TED2012, Campbell explains how he and his curatorial staff focus on creating exhibits that tell a story, and that bring alive to viewers the layers of history underneath the art.
The importance of Campbell’s mission, and indeed that of all museum curators — to preserve cultural artifacts from the distant past lest they be destroyed — is especially salient now given recent events in Aleppo.
War is raging in Syria, and the death toll has risen to over 30,000. As the Syrian military and rebel forces fight for control of the nation’s future, there have also been irreparable cultural casualties. Last week fires burned through Aleppo’s treasured Al-Madina souk, a medieval marketplace believed to be the largest and oldest of its kind and an essential part of the old city. In the fire, 1500 shops from the 14th century were destroyed. The old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre site, also contains Aleppo’s spectacular citadel, a 13th-century structure whose wooden doors were recently burned down.
In light of this senseless destruction, I think of these words from Campbell’s talk, about how he builds a space in which people can be surrounded by physical objects and structures that place them in a lost and unfamiliar world.
“The web … gives us a way of reaching out to audiences around the globe, but nothing replaces the authenticity of the object presented with passionate scholarship,” says Campbell. “Bringing people face to face with our objects is a way of bringing them face to face with people across time, across space, whose lives may have been very different to our own, but who, like us, had hopes and dreams, frustrations and achievements in their lives.”
Below, two rooms from the Metropolitan Museum’s Islamic Art wing that particularly embody this spirit.
The Damascus Room. Last year, after nearly a decade of renovations, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its new Islamic wing. The gallery includes, among other things, a newly configured Damascus Room, a reception room built in A.H.1119/ 1707 A.D and designed in the Ottoman style. In the new gallery, the Damascus Room (which reminds one of the stunning Aleppo Room at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin) has been properly relocated to a corner adjacent to the gallery of Ottoman art. As Campbell discusses in his talk, walking through the gallery, one feels the scope of Islam as it spread across Asia, the Middle East and Europe, traversing fourteen centuries of rich and varied manifestations of the geometric, non-representational design characteristic of Islamic art. In the new wing, one feels transported.
The Patti Cadby Birch Court. This courtyard brings a moment of respite to the visitor without interrupting the architectural flow of the gallery. The columns are originally from the 14th-century Nasrid dynasty, while the rest of the courtyard was built by Fez craftsman, inspired by design from 14th- and 15th-century Morocco.
In recent months the Turkish government has made a concerted push to reclaim a number of antiquities it believes to have been illegally stolen from Anatolian land. If the objects in question are not returned, Turkish museums threaten to halt the lending of further treasures. In particular, officials claim that 18 pieces in the Met’s Norbert Schimmel collection were illegally excavated. Campbell responded that the objects in question were legally acquired in the 1960s before they were later sold to the Met.
“We are in the business of celebrating Turkish culture,” says Campbell. “It is the great displays in London, Paris and New York, more than anything else, that will encourage people to go to Turkey and explore their cultural heritage, and not just the sun and beach.”
Whether we look at the ashes from the bloody clashes in Syria or the political battles over Turkey’s antiquities, it’s clear our cultural heritage is still something worth fighting to keep.