An interesting instance of the politics of culture is the “Heritage of Islam” exhibit currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington. The exhibit, which toured a number of US cities over the past year, is a project of the National Committee to Honor the Fourteenth Centennial of Islam. We had been looking forward to its arrival, and our interest was further stimulated by an article in the June 1983 issue of Smithsonian discussing some controversies that had arisen. “Because the supporters include several major oil companies, construction firms with major Middle East contracts, and the King Faysal Foundation,” the article said, “the committee had taken great pains to stay out of politics and avoid being perceived as a propaganda tool.” We were further intrigued to read that the exhibit had no accompanying catalogue, a rather astounding omission for an exhibit of such size, and especially one which professed an educational purpose. According to the Smithsonian, the curator and the committee “were unable to agree on what the catalogue should say or what approach to the subject it should take.”
We recently visited the exhibit with our good friend, Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata, whose own work is concurrently on display at the museum. We immediately understood the absence of a catalogue, as it would have been practically impossible to put into words the rationale behind the distortion of history and travesty of aesthetic integrity which we saw there. “Staying out of politics,” it seems, required the incredible feat of obscuring and minimizing the centrality of Arab culture to the spiritual sensibility of Islam and its artistic manifestations. Most of the objects displayed are from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, a period when Persian and Ottoman culture and political power were dominant. Only a few works, distinctly mediocre in Boullata’s view, are included from the seventh through twelfth centuries, “when Arab culture established the prototypes of Islamic aesthetics.” “How can an exhibition that claims to represent 14 centuries of a heritage avoid the role of that civilization’s mainspring?” he asked. A documentary film being shown with the exhibit features interviews with Muslims from West Africa to Southeast Asia, but we do not see a single Arab Muslim except in shots such as an aerial view of thousands of white-robed worshipers in Mecca.
The exhibit is deficient at other levels as well. The explanatory texts discuss the abstract quality of Islamic art as “decoration,” emptying the art of its contemplative and mystical dimension. The exhibit devotes considerable space to a replica of the graceful and magnificent Suleimaniye mosque in Turkey, from the fifteenth century, but contains no reference to such acknowledged masterpieces as the Dome of the Rock: Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, is altogether absent from the exhibit. Perhaps the moment that best captured the crude insensitivity of the sponsors occurred on the opening night in Washington, when the musical ensemble was allowed to play the well-known Israeli song, “Hava Naguila.” Had the exhibit been true to its proclaimed historic and aesthetic purpose such an incident could be ignored as a clumsy embarrassment. Instead, it inadvertently provides an appropriate accompaniment to a political presentation of culture that is scandalous in its transparency.