Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bodleian MSS, This Time with the Atlantic Ocean on the Right

I had to be back in New York this week for a Humanities Initiative meeting, so I took the opportunity to visit two museum exhibitions: Crossing Borders at the Jewish Museum and Doris Duke's Shangri-La at the Museum of Art and Design.

While the objects on display were exquisite — they are, after all, the treasures of the Bodleian collection and a real contrast with what I'd just spent time looking at, the ugly and the messy and the practical — the exhibition itself was something of a disappointment.

This exhibition comes on the heels of (or echoes or piggy-backs upon or rides on the coat-tails of) two other fairly recent exhibitions on medieval manuscripts of the three faith and three major linguistic traditions, Sacred at the British Library and The Three Faiths, the exhibition that the New York Public Library put together from its own collections when the BL pulled permission at the last minute for Sacred to travel to the US. On the one hand, it's amazing that these manuscripts are getting exposure with the wider public; on the other hand, it seems like the Abrahamic faiths has just become the trendy framework through which library collections can exhibit some of their finest works.

It was the second trend that really obtained in this exhibition; the theoretical framework was very poorly articulated and the didactic materials were seriously wanting. I don't think that a non-expert would be able to walk into these gallery rooms and really understand, even at a cursory level, what is going on. (To be fair, I didn't use the audio guide since those tend to drive me up a wall, and there may have been some very good narrative and information there.) I also overheard a docent giving seriously incorrect basic information to a group ("The cartographer is the person who writes the manuscripts by hand" — and no, she wasn't standing in front of a hand-drawn map).

They did make some use of technology, though nothing really cutting edge or innovating, putting iPads in the gallery so that people could "page" through the manuscripts and see images of other pages beyond the ones that the books were open to in the cases.

Coincidentally, I'm in the process of writing a review of the exhibition catalogue for one of the medieval studies journals. There's a real gulf between the value of the catalogue for both lay and specialist audiences and the inattention to those same standards in the actual exhibition materials.

I'm glad I went. I might even go back the next time I"m in New York. But I was also quite disappointed. These manuscripts deserved a lot better.

The Shangri-La exhibition was a swing of the pendulum apart. It was small, occupying just one gallery room, but the conception of the exhibition was as sharp as the objects were fine.

The exhibition offers the viewer much information about the architecture and architectural history of the Shangri-La site, contextualizes the objects both within Islamic art and within the Duke collection, and also contains several new works by contemporary Muslim artists who were responding to the Shangri-La collection as resident fellows there. This last aspect of the exhibition also very neatly echoed what seemed to be Doris Duke's collecting ethic: I don't know if this was representative of the collection as a whole, but I was really surprised to see that most of the pieces were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which means that when Duke was buying them up, she was really purchasing contemporary Islamic art rather than pursuing older pieces.

Photography wasn't allowed, so I can't offer a preview, but if you are in New York and have time to see one museum exhibition that's vaguely three-faiths/Near East-related, make it this one.

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