Press Release  December 1, 2020

Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld

courtesy The History of Science Museum

Astrolabe with Lunar Mansions. Abd al-Karim, Syria, 1227–28 CE.

Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld, a new exhibition at the History of Science Museum provides a modern-day interpretation of Islamic metalwork spanning the 11th to 16th centuries, with an accompanying online exhibition and contributions by the local community.

The exhibition will explore how the intersections of cultures across the Islamic world influenced the creation of this metalwork, some of the finest produced. Part of a national tour supported by Art Fund and in partnership with the Subject Specialist Network for Islamic Art and Material Culture, the exhibition features a stunning array of objects on loan from The Courtauld, many never seen outside of London before this tour. These include a delicate candlestick made to a precise size and weight, rare brass bowls inlaid with silver and a 14th century bucket for everyday use, all elaborately designed. They will be displayed alongside the History of Science Museum’s own world-class collection of scientific instruments from the Islamic World.

courtesy The History of Science Museum

Celestial globe. Ja’far ibn ‘Umar ibn Dawlatshah al-Kirmani, Iran, 1362–63 CE.

The exhibition will also examine the intricate designs and styles that made these metal pieces so renowned–and imitated–by civilizations around the globe. Signs of the zodiac, constellations, the planets and coats of arms all feature. Islamic metalwork is renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship and the skill behind this work will be showcased through on-screen content.

The highlight of the exhibition is a woman’s metal handbag, the only surviving example of its kind. It was made in the early 14th century in Mosul, northern Iraq for an important lady based in the courtly circles of the Ilkhanid dynasty. This handbag, known as the Courtauld Bag and decorated with images of eight musicians playing instruments, shows the incredible metalworking skills passed down through generations.

To ensure as many people as possible can experience the exhibition, the History of Science Museum has responded to the current climate by creating a full online exhibition that will also include objects and stories not seen in the physical exhibition. There will be modern ‘Cultures in Conversation’ as the online exhibition will include input from visitors and social media.

The museum has taken a unique approach to the online exhibition by working with Oxford-based volunteers with a cultural connection to these objects, who provided their own perspective based on their personal and cultural knowledge. The volunteers came to the UK as forced migrants from countries including Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Sudan. For the online exhibition they will be sharing their own objects that build on and complement the objects from The Courtauld and the History of Science Museum. Many of the volunteers have been working with the museum for some time as part of a project called Multaka, which means ‘meeting place’ in Arabic.

The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Metalwork bag, Mosul, Northern Iraq 1300 – 1330. Brass with silver and gold inlay. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

One volunteer, Jonathan Fruchter, has created an interactive digital program through which online visitors can design their own Islamic inspired patterns. Jonathan said, “I was amazed by the intricacy of the patterns of some of the objects. I decided to digitize the pattern on the handbag, and was inspired to create a symmetric-pattern-generating computer program. The program is based on the "type" of symmetry most common in Islamic art, and allows the user to design their own Islamic-influenced repetitive patterns with just a few lines and brush strokes. Mathematics is usually perceived as intimidating and very dry. I think that this exhibition is a great opportunity to share a bit of my knowledge and show people that maths can be beautiful and fun!”

This approach provides a new way for visitors to understand and appreciate these objects. Moreover, the wealth of knowledge and understanding the volunteers bring has a lasting legacy: it is being added to the museums’ database and shared with the wider community through multilingual events, tours, blogs and displays, but most importantly the museum’s working practices have become more inclusive and collaborative.

The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Incense burner of pierced and engraved brass inlaid with silver, with images of the planets within roundels, Mamluk (Syria) 13th century. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

Dr. Silke Ackermann, Director of the History of Science Museum, said: “Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld gives us insight into the craft and the science of Islamic metalworking. Our interpretation of the exhibition beautifully reveals how ideas and stories have traveled across time and territory, language and medium. Work to create this exhibition took place through the COVID-19 pandemic and we had to repeatedly pivot as we largely communicated through a new medium–online; it has certainly proved to be our most dynamic display yet. We are delighted by the contribution made by the Multaka volunteers and grateful for The Courtauld’s generosity and their partnership–this collaboration has been an absolute joy and we have learnt a huge amount in the process.”

Dr. Alexandra Gerstein, McQueens, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Courtauld said: “We are thrilled to partner with Oxford’s History of Science Museum on the Precious & Rare tour and to be the first exhibition on display when the museum reopens to the public. The exhibition provides an opportunity for people to experience and enjoy some of the most treasured art works from both The Courtauld and History of Science Museum’s collections and to find out more about their fascinating history.”

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