Islamic Showcase: Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, V&A, London - Museums Association

Islamic Showcase: Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, V&A, London

The V&A has finally given its important Islamic art collection the home it deserves, although the gallery could have been better connected to the rest of the museum, argues Jane Weeks
Jane Weeks
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This summer's opening of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art is the latest milestone in the Victoria and Albert Museum's (V&A) Future Plan project, which aims to redisplay the collections, re-emphasise the quality of the original 19th-century building, and bring clarity to the physical space of the museum. The Future Plan concept sees the V&A as a 'city with a series of quarters', with the Asia quarter including the arts of China, Japan, Korea and South Asia, as well as those of the Islamic world.

Since its foundation in 1852, the V&A has built up one of the world's finest collections of Islamic art, including ceramics, textiles, carpets, metalwork, glass and woodwork. Until recently, this was displayed in a gallery that had changed little since 1950. A £5.4m donation from the Jameel family provided sufficient funding not just for a new gallery, but also for part of the collection to undertake a tour, where it was seen by more than 280,000 people in the US, Japan and Sheffield. The money has also allowed curators to go on study tours to learn more about the context of the objects in the collection.

The design of the new gallery is the work of the architect Softroom, which is also responsible for the V&A's new Education Centre. The architect's design has echoes of Islamic architecture; it has opened up the space, so that the domed roof of the building is visible, and the midnight blue ceiling and pale green walls reflect the palette of colours used in Islamic ceramics.

At the heart of the new gallery lies the Ardabil carpet, a masterpiece of Islamic art made in 1539 for the Iranian ruler Shah Tahmasp and purchased by the V&A in 1893 on the recommendation of the 19th-century writer and designer William Morris.

Rather than hang it on a wall, the designers have displayed the carpet horizontally at floor level, as it was made to be seen, and encased it with vertical, non-reflective glass to create the largest museum display case in the world. The whole structure is suspended from the ceiling, which dispenses with the need for metal supports between the sheets of glass. The forest of suspension wires that hang the floating canopy from the ceiling are reminiscent of the chains of lanterns suspended from the roof of a mosque.

This mosque-like atmosphere is further enhanced by the soundproofing qualities of the canopy. To preserve the carpet, the lights in the canopy are only turned on for ten minutes every half hour. While the carpet is illuminated, the effect is stunning, but for 20 minutes of each half hour there is effectively a 'black hole' at the centre of the gallery, which reduces the light levels.

The gallery tells the story of Islamic art using 400 of the 10,000 objects in the V&A's collection. One of the key messages is that, contrary to popular belief, Islamic art is both secular and religious, and that the art of the palace was equal in sophistication to the art of the mosque.

Objects are drawn from across the whole Islamic world, which at its height stretched from the Atlantic coast of Spain to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and chronologically from the 8th to the 20th centuries. Although the focus is on the objects, discretely-placed screens and listening posts provide context. They offer images of some of the major Islamic palaces and mosques, snatches of music, and poetry by the Persian poet Hafiz, whose words form part of the design of the Ardabil carpet.

With the opening of the Jameel gallery, two of the three aims of the Future Plan - to redisplay the collections, and re-emphasise the quality of the original building - have been magnificently realised. However, the third - to bring clarity to the physical space of the museum - has not been fully achieved. A weakness of the design is its failure to integrate with the rest of the museum.

Only two of the three entrances into the gallery provide visitors with an introduction and a plan of the space; those entering from the adjacent South Asia gallery are thrown into the gallery without explanation. More distractingly, a fourth entrance leads into the newly-opened shop. And although there is a barrier to prevent direct access, it does not stop the noise and bright lights of the shop bleeding into the gallery, and impinging on the serenity.

More thought also needs to be given to how best to link the various quarters intellectually, as well as physically. A way needs to be found to connect the British Galleries with the Jameel gallery, in order to highlight the inspirational impact Islamic art had on William Morris and his fellow British craftsmen and designers, who were the initial impetus behind the V&A's Islamic collections.

Jane Weeks is a museum consultant

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