Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Conversation with the Community

There is a small but pretty spectacular exhibition of Qur'ān leaves currently on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition is interesting beyond the objects that it includes in that it begins to tackle the question of how to display religious objects as works of art and how to balance traditional and academic interpretation a little bit more head-on than many exhibitions I have seen recently.

In this case, the curators decided to handle this issue by writing their own label for each leaf but then also turning to members of Boston's Muslim communities and asking them to write an additional label for each one in which they reflect on the page, the calligraphy, the text, as Muslims.

(Click any of the images to enlarge to a readable size, insofar as anything behind glass photographed with an iPhone in a gallery with works-on-paper-friendly lighting levels can be readable.)

The curatorial note at the entrance to the gallery explains:  "In the spring of 2010 a group from the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury came to see Qur'ān pages in the MFA's collection. They were thrilled to see the pages, but not for the same reasons that I — as an art historian — am drawn to study them. This divergence in our experience led me to consider the different kinds of meaning a Qur'ān page can hold, and inspired this exhibition."

It's still a little bit essentializing in that it assumes an absolute boundary between faith and scholarship — not to say that there necessarily shouldn't be that boundary, just that I'm also not sure it can be taken for granted —but it is starting to grapple with a question that presents itself and that, in trying to answer it, may lead to greater depth in presenting various materials that are sacred to various different religious communities.

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