The Met’s Art of the Arab Lands Exhibit – Reopened At Last!
When’s the last time you spent time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arab Lands collection? If you knew it existed at all, that would have been sometime in 2003 or before then, when the museum mothballed it and then spent the next eight years giving it some major renovations. It’s open again, and it’s the kind of exhibit that often gets overlooked: other than some Manhattan building-sized carpets, and the interior of a Damascus home originally built in 1119 AD, it isn’t full of the kind of colorful or breathtaking objects that crowds typically come here to see. And for that reason, it’s very much worth your while to spend some quality time here when you next visit the Met.
Because the original collectors of this kind of art wanted objects which reaffirmed their own class status, you won’t get a look at how ordinary people in Iraq, or Iran, or Egypt, or Bangladesh lived centuries or millennia ago. Most of the objects whose origin is known – the utensils, jewelry, weapons, manuscripts, sculptures and Turkish suits of armor – have some sort of royal lineage. But if you pay close attention, you’ll encounter some irresistible treasures. There’s an incense burner large enough to intimidate a medium-sized dog (this was from the days before Lysol); a depiction of a crazy machine that proves that Rube Goldberg contraptions predated Mr. Goldberg by several centuries; and a manuscript very vividly illustrating a Hafez poem which celebrates drunkenness as a way to connect with the divine, something you might not expect to see in a gallery dedicated to art made by Muslims. Serious art history fans can follow the collection on a chronological path out of Egypt as it makes its way to South Asia, illuminating how much cross-pollination was going on (just tracing how much medieval and dark-age European tapestries were influenced by the levantine world, and how the influence then came full circle, is fascinating to witness). There’s a recreation of a major archaeological dig outside Teheran, astrolabes, at least one harpy, and overwhelming evidence that the Baghdad spice traders of a thousand years ago were just as obsessed with size and status as the Darien hedge fund traders are today. And thanks to new techniques developed by the Met’s preservationists, there’s a rotating series of rare paper and fabric objects and fragments dating from as far back as the fourth century AD
Along with several tours by Met staff, there’s an informative audio tour available for $7 (museum members get a discount). Museum hours are Tuesday–Thursday; 9:30 AM-5:30 PM; Friday and Saturday: 9:30 AM -9 PM, and Sunday: 9:30 AM-5:30 PM, holidays excepted.
By the way, there are a couple of excellent concerts – free with museum admission – coming up on Nov 4 and 5 at 5 PM at the Balcony Bar featuring the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble, an all-star Middle Eastern group including George Ziadeh – oud, vocals; Tareq Abboushi – buzuq, vocals; Sami Shumays – violin, vocals; Johnny Farraj – riqq, vocals; Zafer Tawil – qanun, violin, vocals; and Amir ElSaffar – santur, vocals.
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