ART OF ISLAM
vre’s department of Islamic art, in elegantly accented English. “The original idea of the museum, however — to house Muslim art on an equal footing with Western art, displaying both as a single ‘ open universal culture’ — is even more imperative today.”
When the galleries opened, they were fascinating in their scope. The objects were a mix of the beautiful, the interesting and the surprising. Multimedia displays showing the ebb and flow of Arab, Persian and European conquest were absorbing and edifying.
Feedback from the public, however, showed visitors often felt the galleries didn’t explain clearly enough what actually constitutes Islamic culture. A through-narrative was required.
“Because our collections are presented as masterpieces of art, it was difficult for our visitors to understand who are the humans behind these objects, who were the craftsmen, what are the cultural exchanges visible through these objects,” Lintz says. “We realised we needed more storytelling.”
As the times became more troubled, that was more than a museological issue. It became politically urgent.
A second change was to set aside a space within the permanent collection for two or three temporary exhibitions a year. Last year a comprehensive show of Moroccan culture was mounted, drawing in many French people of Moroccan heritage who might not otherwise have visited the museum. From there, many went on to examine the Islamic galleries and, perhaps, the rest of the Louvre too, Lintz says.
“Of course these changes will not be enough to solve the social problem we have in France with Islam today,” she says ruefully. “We try to be ambitious, but to stay realistic and modest.”
Lintz is also beginning modest collaborations with schools and community organisations. Since September, the Louvre has been working with disaffected young people from the suburbs — the French word, banlieues, has a uneasy, disparaging overtone today — that have been the sites of unrest, including riots, in recent years. Children aged between 14 and 16 have been chosen to work with the museum on documenting objects. The project runs through the French academic year, from September to June.
“They have to choose an object, then discover where it was made — sometimes during medieval times, sometimes much later in the 16th or 17th century,” Litz explains.
“Then they see how this object arrived in the Louvre from where it was made, in Iran or Central Asia or Egypt.”
It is a way for the young people to grasp the historical interaction of civilisations and to gain pride in their own heritage. They have been given the run of the Louvre’s storage areas and are being helped to make a video of their work, which will be shown next month. They will spend that evening in the galleries, working as guides to the public, explaining the objects of their study.
“It will not change humanity. It will not change France. But I think it’s our responsibility to use this department to have such conversations,” Lintz says.
Makariou agrees. For her, the Louvre’s Islamic galleries remain an oasis of hope. “It’s a place to go to calm one’s anger; a place to go to refresh the idea that beauty has been a strong message of this world too,” Makariou says. “I hope beauty will triumph. I do still hope it will.”
France isn’t the only European country marshalling its cultural resources to bridge the civilisational clash. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin has a branch called the Museum of Islamic Art, one of the oldest of its kind, established in 1904. A largely government-funded program of Arabic-language tours for young people, aimed at recent refugee arrivals, takes in the Pergamon’s galleries of Islamic and of an- cient Near East art as well as the German Historical Museum and the Bode Museum of Byzantine art.
The German plan is manifold: to welcome new arrivals, to introduce them to museum spaces, to open up cultural dialogue. “Sometimes people say: ‘The Germans have all our heritage! They stole it!’ ” one of the guides, Razan Nassreddine, told The New York Times, adding that people also often admit the art is probably safer in Berlin than in Syria.
Sometimes people cry. When Kamal Alramadhani, a 25-year-old Iraqi economics student, saw the beautifully reconstructed Ishtar Gate, once the entrance to Babylon, at the Pergamon, he got goosebumps, he told the Times reporter, Rachel Donadio. Donadio continues the anecdote: “It’s from Iraq,” he added quietly, through an Arabic translator. “My country.”
Fundamentalist attacks on the cultural patrimony of the Middle East — on the grounds that maintaining pre-Islamic artefacts amounts to apostasy — have reverberated around the world. The Taliban’s destruction of 6th-century statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan valley, the destruction of Timbuktu’s Sufi shrines and ancient manuscripts and Islamic State’s attacks on the Temple of Bel in Palmyra and on Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, have been attacks on the cultural history of humanity. Many of the targets were UNESCO-protected World Heritage sites, for what that was worth to the destroyers. Lintz says the Louvre was “very anxious” after the destruction of the Assyrian bulls in Nimrud, 30km south of Mosul in Iraq, last year. The Louvre owns a magnificent set: the original source of many Westerners’ fascination with the ancient civilisation. “I am not a specialist in terrorism, and Islamic art departments can be a target, of course,” she says, “but people who do specialise in terrorist psychology and strategy explain that sites in the Middle East are targets because it is a message to Western countries about their power — and it is also a way for [the terrorists] to organise illicit traffic [in stolen antiquities].” It makes more sense to target Western cul- Babylon’s Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, left; Palmyra’s murdered head of antiquities Khaled al-Asaad, above; the Louvre’s Islamic art department, bottom; and the 14th-century Baptistere de Saint Louis, from Egypt or Syria, at the Louvre, inset ture in the West, Lintz points out — “degenerate” events such as the pop music concert at the Bataclan — than displays of Islamic art. “We never know, of course, we never know ...” she adds, trailing off
The destruction of pre-Islamic art — and art from the wrong denominations of Islam, including Sufism — in the Middle East has galvanised the museum world. Lintz is among an international group of museum curators who are working against the clock to “preserve the memory”, a chilling phrase, of the region’s great art and architecture.
Her international contacts are good. Before taking over the Islamic wing from Makariou in November 2013, Lintz had worked alongside Loyrette, running a small team that looked after the tens of thousands of objects the Louvre has on long-term loan in 25 counties. Her doctorate was on Iranian culture.
“We are collecting scientific archives,” she says. “Researchers in cultural heritage and the history of art have always taken a lot of photos, and there are a lot of other documents.”
She says the group realised the urgency of this work only recently. “I’m sure that all my colleagues were very shocked. But when the media came to speak to us, we could only say, ‘It’s awful.’
“But this year, understanding it will be a very long-term situation — we realised that we curators are in charge of cultural heritage, and we must prepare for the future.
“We have to create a memory. But also, after the war we could also be rebuilding, and to rebuild we will need documents.”
Many Syrian archeologists and art historians have fled to France or Germany. As well as running the day-to-day risks of all Syrians, they are symbolic targets. Last August, when Islamic State was busy destroying Palmyra, it also beheaded the 82-year-old scholar Khaled alAsaad, who oversaw antiquities there, and strung up his body in the main square.
Lintz says the exiles are working with the archival project. Its organisers are also in touch with the director of antiquities in Syria, Maamoun Abdulkarim, which is complicated. He works for the Bashar al-Assad regime, so is unlikely to say that the Syrian army is destroying the country’s material culture. “But he is still a serious professional,” Lintz demurs. He swore to rebuild the destroyed antiquities of Palmyra when Syrian government forces retook the beleaguered city in March.
Security in Paris has been high for many years. Visitors to the Louvre know the ordeal of entering through its glamorous IM Peidesigned glass pyramid in the central courtyard. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, however, security in France was stepped up further and, after the November mass shootings, a state of emergency was declared across the nation, which remains in place. The Louvre has progressively tightened security measures to protect its collections as well as its people. Lintz’s guarded optimism surfaces again. “Inshallah, as we say, I feel protected inside the gallery.”