A l’Orientale

Organized by the University of Zurich’s Department of Art History and the CNRS/InVisu Paris, in collaboration with the Museum Rietberg Zürich and the Moser Familienmuseum Charlottenfels der Heinrich und Henri Moser Foundation, the international conference “A l’Orientale: Collecting, Displaying and Appropriating Islamic Art and Architecture in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries” (Mai 4–6, 2017) brought together experts from both academia and museums to discuss the subject of Islamic art. The conference’s conveners were Francine Giese (University of Zurich), Mercedes Volait (CNRS/InVisu), and Ariane Varela Braga (University of Zurich).

Elika Palenzona-Djalili

The first collectors of art objects from the Islamic lands started by exhibiting their collections—of what they called and still is called “Islamic Art”—in the 19th century. Up to the present day, the phenomenon of “Islamic Art” appears to be still controversial in terms of the question of which objects qualify to be called “Islamic” or “work of art” as well as in terms of the strategies and concepts required in order to provide a didactically appropriate understanding of the region from which they are coming from and their function and context.

The objects that formed the initial collections of Islamic art in the West provided the first opportunity to conduct research on small items. Therefore, the field has ever since been divided up between experts who decide to display the objects according to special arrangements and installations and scholars who work at educational institutions and universities.

The conference is the first step to bring together both experts from the academia and the museum world to discuss the strategies of displaying and contextualizing Islamic collections in the 21st century. Another crucial part of this debate is the role of the collector in the process of collecting and displaying Islamic art. Henri Moser (1844–1923), a Swiss collector in the 19th century who is considered one of the main figures of his time in both collecting and exhibiting Islamic art, received special attention on this occasion.

The conference, which examined the three topics “Oriental Taste and Display,” “Appropriation,” and “Collecting” was held in three different venues. The first day of the conference was dedicated to “Oriental Taste and Display.” The talks reflected the strategies or definitions of various objects or exhibitions in the past, such as the Damascus rooms on display in London or the carpet exhibition of 1891 in London.

The second day, under the title “Appropriation,”, was held at the University of Zurich. The panels discussed various types of appropriation, which is a phenomenon of the 19th century. This appropriation and integration may take place from the perspective of Islamic history, which is reused in the architecture and interiors. Three papers focused on those regions of Italy close to the lands of Islamic culture, but then again Henri Moser’s appropriation of Islamic elements was also part of the presentations. As a commissioner general, Henri Moser used neo-Islamic style for the pavilion of Bosnia at the International exhibition of 1900 in Paris as well as for the exhibition hall at the Historical Museum of Bern to which he donated his fascinating collection in 1914. The third and last day of the conference was held in Charlottenfels Castle in Neuhausen, close to Henri Moser’s hometown Schaffhausen, where he had grown up and where he first exhibited his Oriental collection.

The highlight of the conference was a round table at the end of the first day at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, the venue of the entire first day of the conference. The participants in the panel were the four curators of the main collections of Islamic art in Europe, Kjeld v. Folsach from the David Collection in Copenhagen, Yannick Lintz from the Louvre Museum, Tim Stanley from the V&A Museum in London, and Stefan Weber from the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. After a brief introduction and presentation of their collections and the history of their exhibitions up to now, suggestions were presented for improvement or concerning the issue of how far the public can be expected to follow the narrative of each collection without being lost in the host of Islamic dynasties and dates.

What could be observed at the conference was that the fascination with Islamic art continues into the 21st century, but there is still no universal solution to how best to display objects of Islamic art.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, p. 37)