Exhibiting Iranian Art in the 21st Century

By Sheila R. Canby
Submitted to Session P4811 (Presenting and Representing Iran in Museum Collections and Exhibitions, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
All Time Periods;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Since 2000 several of the world’s best-known universal museums have completely rethought their presentation of art from Iran and the lands from Spain to India. In the same period new museums have undergone construction in several Persian Gulf countries. This paper will explore the motives behind these renovations and new institutions, reflecting on how world events have influenced choices of what Iranian art to show and how to show it. This examination will consider how collections of Iranian art came to be made in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, determining what types of art would be emphasized in museum displays. From practical features such as lighting and casework to conceptual ones, including the degree to which Iranian art is integrated with the arts of the Arab World, Central or South Asia, how have curators in the 21st century endeavored to show Iranian art to its best advantage while explaining or evoking the context in which it was made?
Examples of events and situations outside the control of museums have had a strong impact on their approach to exhibiting Iranian art including the 9/11 attacks in the United States, tensions between countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran, and business deals between France and Iran. The 9/11 attacks prompted both a sense of vulnerability and a desire to learn about the history and culture of the whole Middle East, including Iran. Qatar, whose great wealth led to the founding of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, subsequently became embroiled in supporting Sunnis against Shiites in Iraq and Syria and thus in opposition to Iran. Yet, the museum has continued to display Iranian art. Finally, at the Louvre the funding for a special exhibition of Safavid art in 2007 appears to have been linked to business dealings between France and Iran and a presumed “cultural donation” as a result of that transaction.
This paper will compare the approaches of several museums against a backdrop of the different societies in which they sit. Measures of success, such as reviews in the press, visitor numbers, and academic reaction will be considered. In addition, the paper will aim to assess whether the attitudes about Iran and its art that the public brought into the museum were changed by their experience of viewing Iranian art in a fresh setting with updated information and a new contextual framework.