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Volume 41, Number 6November/December 1990

In This Issue

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Kuwait's Heritage House

Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

Fifteen years ago, it was a gleam in one man's eye. Seven years ago, the Nasser Al Sabah collection was unveiled as an outstanding, nearly comprehensive collection of Islamic art, and placed on permanent display at the Kuwait National Museum's Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah - the Islamic Antiquities Collection.

Today, thanks to a year-round program of local and international activities built around the collection, Dar al-Athar al-lslamiyyah (DAI) has firmly established Kuwait on the international map of art and scholarship and rekindled, in its corner of the modern Arab world, a spark of the intellectual, creative and scholarly interaction which once lit the great Muslim centers of learning of the past.

The gleam, in the beginning, was in the eye of Shaykh Nasser al-Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, a Kuwaiti infatuated with the beauty of Islamic art since his school days in Jerusalem. In the mid-1970's, he began to collect, traveling widely to buy Islamic art objects on the international market, relying largely on his personal taste and that of his wife, Shaykha Hussah al-Salem Al Sabah. They bought their first piece - a 14th-century Mamluk enamel-worked glass bottle - in London in 1975.

Within eight years, the couple assembled what is now widely acclaimed as one of the finest contemporary collections of Islamic art in the world, described by art scholar and critic Sheila Canby as "a collection which is both comprehensive in terms of periods and schools represented, and which contains works that any major museum would be proud to own."

Shaykh Nasser's initial impetus was the sheer beauty of the individual pieces, and the collection reflects his own sense of art and esthetics. By the early 1980's, however, he started filling gaps in the collection with the advice of internationally renowned scholars.

Yet his discerning eye remained an important attribute, especially in spotting pieces that others might miss or pass up. On a visit to the second-hand market of New Delhi, for example, he spotted a badly corroded metal box. After cleaning it in his hotel room, he found he had bought a fine example of a Mamluk-period inscribed pen box. In a poor district of Fez, Shaykh Nasser spotted a derelict pair of carved doors more than four meters (13 feet) tall. They turned out to date from the 14th century and now, their color and carving restored, are displayed with appropriate dignity.

"When our house was full of carpets and objects nearly piled one over the other," Shaykha Hussah recalls, "we started thinking of a museum to house and display our growing collection. That was when we realized the need to acquire works of art according to criteria other than intrinsic beauty and personal taste, so that our collection would be widely representative of techniques, artistic styles, geographical regions and historical eras."

When he decided to place the collection on permanent display, Shaykh Nasser commissioned the professional assistance of a team from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, headed by associate curator of Islamic art Marilyn Jenkins.

The particular strengths of the collection, in the view of Shaykh Nasser, his wife and the international experts alike, are its comprehensive nature and its richness in individual masterpieces - reflecting the personal eye and taste of a collector, rather than the results of narrowly focused excavations or acquisitions from a single region or period. Ceramic objects are the highlight of the collection, in terms of range and quality, and the variety of calligraphy is also very strong. However, visitors and scholars are intially impressed by the scope of the display - including metal, stone, glass, wood, carpets, calligraphy, miniatures, jewelry, coins and textiles.

A few objects stand out for their particular beauty and craftsmanship, such as an early 11th-century (Fatimid-era) carved rock-crystal bottle; a 10th-century set of rock-crystal chessmen from Egypt; a carved and painted wooden box from 14th-century Iran, constructed to hold multiple copies of the Qur'an; a 10th-century bronze astrolabe, one of the earliest dated examples of this type of navigational aid; a deep blue lusterware jar from 13th-century Damascus, inscribed with the names of the potter and the owner; a 17th-century portrait of a Persian painter painting a portrait, from Moghul India; the carved and painted wooden doors from Fez; and an 11th- or 12th-century carved ivory hunting horn from Sicily.

Several of the finest pieces, including the rock-crystal bottle and chessmen, were purchased from the collection of the late Marquis de Ganay of Paris. They are thus on public display again for the first time in half a century - and, appropriately, closer to their respective places of origin in the heartland of Islam.

Shaykh Nasser has written that in collecting, his emphasis has been "first of all on the spiritual bonds which unite the Muslim peoples and the artifacts which express them - manuscripts of the Qur'an, inscriptions in mosques, mihrabs and qiblas - and second, the common factors which form their culture."

In bringing priceless aspects of Arab and Muslim culture back to the Muslim world, the Al Sabahs - members of Kuwait's ruling family - are conscious of the tradition of princely families of the past, under whose patronage great works of art were created or collected. As Shaykha Hussah told a recent UNESCO conference, "patronage and conscious choice have always been paramount in the formation of Islamic collections in the Muslim world" - just as they were in Renaissance Europe or, more recently, in 19th- and 20th-century Europe, North America and Japan.

Marilyn Jenkins, who worked closely with Shaykh Nasser for many years, described him in the museum's inaugural catalogue as "an inveterate collector and an intuitive connoisseur with a highly refined taste, trained eye and photographic memory. He has a boundless enthusiasm which sustains him during the sometimes long pursuit of an object, a coolness which stands him in very good stead during its capture, and a genuine love for beautiful things in general - and Islamic art in particular - which is reflected in the manner in which he cares for and lavishes attention on an object once it is his."

Since its opening in February 1983, the DAI collection has grown to over 7000 items besides its 13,000-piece coin collection. At any one time, however, only about 1200 objects are on display, with the rest stored in the museum vaults but accessible to scholars upon request.

Appreciation of the collection is enhanced by the wide-open, airy layout of the pavilion, one of four that comprise the Kuwait National Museum. Objects are displayed on four different levels, in galleries connected by ramps and bridges so that, walking through the museum, the visitor is surrounded by masterpieces of Islamic art - hanging on walls, set on the floor, out in display cases. Because the galleries are separated by low walls, and individual objects are often isolated by space and judicious lighting, the visitor is constantly catching glimpses of the surrounding galleries; he is reminded of the periods he has already visited and drawn into those that lie ahead. And the museum's design allows visitors to walk around many of the objects and view them from different perspectives - including from above, which is particularly appropriate for large carpets.

The galleries are arranged in chronological order, starting with the early Islamic periods in the Levant, Syria, Egypt and Spain, passing through the medieval art of Fatimid Egypt, Syria, Sicily, the Ayyubid-Mamluk era and Iran, and finishing with the art of the Ottomans, later Iran and Moghul India. Maps, panels and large color photographs provide useful information on the periods and places from which the objects come.

Asked which parts of the collections he is most proud of, Shaykh Nasser replies, "I don't think 'proud' is the word I would use, but if you ask which aspects have given me the most pleasure, I would make my selection by decorative technique, and name the wide range of objects in which carving is the principal ornament. These objects include stone architectural elements, wooden boxes and decorative friezes, as well as objects made of carved jade, marble, ivory, rock crystal and, of course, gemstones, which have always been one of my great loves. We are lucky to have a considerable number of very fine carved pieces dating from the earliest days of Islam to the 18th century, and from areas stretching from the far west of North Africa and Spain to India in the east."

Yet Shaykh Nasser recognizes that DAI's collection, like that of every other museum, has weaker areas that need to be strengthened. "A personal collection like ours is bound to reflect the individual esthetic inclinations of the collector," he says, "even though my tastes may have developed and shifted during the 15 years since I acquired my first pieces." So DAI is filling in a few weak spots - early Islamic objects, Persian miniatures, and Ottoman period pieces - enriching the collection with objects from museum-supported excavations and, in the words of Shaykha Hussah, "developing new ways to share with others around the world the pleasures of our collection of art."

Although DAI does not have a particular acquisitions policy, Shaykh Nasser says, "I may develop new areas in the future, or it may well be left to later generations to broaden the scope of the collection, perhaps in pursuit of their own interests."

DAI's curator, Ghada Qaddoumi, is reflecting the attitude of all the museum's staff when she says that "we have always aimed to create a live, active and dynamic museum, based on constant interaction with people who visit the premises, or others around the world who visit special exhibitions or read our publications. We don't want only to acquire and display objects of beauty and ancient art, but also to put life into the objects."

Shaykha Hussah, who has been DAI's director since its opening, notes that "the collection's objects speak for themselves -they tell a story about the time and place they came from, for whom they were made, the production and decorative techniques used and how these spread throughout the world, and the cultural, social, technological and economic context in which Islamic art evolved and matured. Some pieces are documents that help establish benchmarks by which we can date other pieces, such as the 13th-century inscribed lusterware jar made in Damascus for someone called Asad al-Iskan-darani - probably from Alexandria."

As the collection's reputation has spread in the international art community, DAI has become more active in lending objects for major international exhibitions, as well as exhibiting visiting shows from abroad. This year, the museum lent more than 100 of its finest pieces for an exhibition of Islamic art that will travel around the United States for two years - including stops in Baltimore, Fort Worth, Atlanta, Richmond and St. Louis - and will then go on to Canada, Paris and Japan. A unique collection of 120 Islamic pieces from the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad was on display at DAI in May - the first time that pieces from the renowned Hermitage collection have traveled outside the Soviet Union - while a smaller collection from DAI has been exhibited in Leningrad.

DAI also lent pieces for the "Treasures of Islam" exhibition in 1985, the "Siileyman the Magnificent" exhibition in 1987 (See Aramco World, July-August 1987), and the exhibitions "Timur and the Princely Vision" and "The Romance of The Taj Mahal" in 1989, as well as to smaller exhibitions. In return, the museum exhibited a newly-discovered cache of Qur'ans from Sanaa in 1985, Qur'anic manuscripts from Bahrain's Bayt al-Qur'an collection in 1987, calligraphy from Turkey in 1988, Islamic coins from Sweden in 1989, and Daghestani nomad art this year.

Qaddoumi notes that the aim of most exhibitions, whether they come from the museum's own collection or from international sources, is "to bring together objects that are separated in their usual display venues, and to relate the objects to one another. This permits visitors to appreciate the artistic influences in the pieces, and to trace the changes and interrelationships in the development of decorative techniques and motifs." In addition, she says, "our aim is to please through a display of art, but also to produce catalogues with technical information that can help to educate people about the achievements of Islamic civilization and the pluralism of Islamic art."

The museum's book-publishing program has kept pace with its participation in international exhibitions. Along with its inaugural catalogue, Islamic Art in the Kuwait National Museum, DAI has published a smaller catalogue of recent acquisitions (1984), the volume for the "Variety in Unity" exhibition in 1987, a catalogue on science in Islam, a book on swords, the catalogue of the Sanaa Qur'ans, and a book on the manuscripts from the Bayt al-Qur'an in Bahrain.

In addition, scholars who have studied parts of the collection have produced books of their own on the museum's tombstones and ceramic water filters; other works are in progress on coins, jewelry, Kaba keys and the al-Bahnasa archeological excavations in southern Egypt, which the museum has supported for four seasons.

Another DAI publishing project under study is to reissue in new or facsimile editions rare books from the museum library, which contains among its more than 10,000 volumes such examples as the early 14th-century Automata of al-Jazari, the first edition of Sale's first translation of the Qur'an into English, published in 1734, and the 1809 edition of Description de I'Egypte. The library was painstakingly assembled through the efforts of self-styled "bibliomaniac" Ibrahim Kamel, who visited numerous Middle Eastern and Western capitals to acquire the rare volumes that Shaykh Nasser explains are "essential for the study of Islamic art." About 60 percent of the books are in Arabic, and the entire collection is available for use by students and scholars.

Referring to the oldest Arabic volumes and the culture they describe, Shaykha Hussah points out that, unlike classical Rome or Greece, "we [Arabs] are not a dead civilization, and Islam is not an antique culture. We're alive. We speak the same Arabic language that was used in inscriptions on seventh-century objects of art. Europeans find it difficult to communicate with the old languages of the medieval period, but we maintain a dynamic, living link with our Islamic and Arab heritage. We are involved in a process of national revival and development that is a continuation of the achievements of our ancestors throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and we can relate closely to the esthetics and sentiments which pertained when the Arabs and Muslims made significant - often leading - contributions to world civilization."

Now, Shaykh Nasser feels, "there is far too little relationship between these great works of art and our modern world. We have acquired all the everyday technology of the 20th century to make our lives comfortable, but we may be in danger of losing our cultural identity as Arabs. I hope our collection will inspire and encourage the present generation of artists, craftsmen, architects and young people in general to seek, through the study of the past, a means of expression more appropriate to our Arab and Muslim culture."

One of DAI's most noteworthy achievements has been its ability to forge just such transgenerational links. From its inception, the museum included a variety of community-oriented activities such as lectures, exhibitions, library facilities, calendars, a conservation lab, museum tours, a bilingual newsletter, a museum-supporters' society, art-history courses, workshops and publications. Activities aimed at the young include guided tours for children, a children's museum guide and activity book, and exhibitions or children's art. The museum also includes a small bookshop stocking DAI publications and other relevant books and magazines, and it publishes an annual calendar.

The museum has funded archeological excavations in Egypt, in cooperation with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science and London's School of Oriental and African Studies, providing training for Kuwaiti archeologists and other technical scholars who will be able to investigate Kuwait's own antiquities sites in the future.

DAI has also worked closely with |the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research on technical studies like analyses of the con-ancient gold pieces in the Al Sabahs' collection. The long-term aim of such activities is to develop in-house technical and training capacities - and proficient Kuwaiti staff- in fields such as conservation, restoration, cataloguing and library science.

During the museum's annual season from October through April, lectures and short courses are offered in a variety of subjects, taught by museum staff, visiting scholars or experts resident in Kuwait. In 1984, the museum started offering 10-week art-appreciation courses in Arabic and English, which included lecture tours of the exhibition. Courses attract an average of 100 participants, and some enroll as many as 140. Occasionally, they also include field trips around Kuwait and even to other Arab capitals. DAI is exploring the possibility of linking its lecture series with Kuwait University diploma courses.

A year later, in 1985, DAI launched an ongoing slide lecture series on the background and historical aspects of Islamic art and architecture. In recent years, the lecturers have come from a wide variety of institutions outside DAI - Kuwait University, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science - and even from beyond the borders of the country, such as the Ashmolean Museum, the American Numismatic Society, the Walters Art Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution, and the universities of Chicago, Istanbul, Riyadh, Sanaa, Cairo, Khartoum, Frankfurt, and Munich, as well as Harvard.

But along with scholarship, an equally important focus for DAI is children, Shaykha Hussah explains. "We are assessing our children's program to see how we can get the children to come closer to the objects in our collection - to arouse their curiosity, to stimulate their creativity and to help teach them more about the history, geography, heritage and culture of their world. Because if we do not appreciate and make use of our heritage in our life today, that heritage loses a large part of its meaning."

Children who visit the museum often return to their schools to make drawings or carry out art projects inspired by the forms and decorative motifs they saw in the museum. Some of these works are exhibited in the museum from time to time. The museum is also working with the Ministry of Education to strengthen the Islamic art and heritage curriculum in Kuwait's schools, training teachers and sponsoring lectures and symposia on art education. The children's museum guidebook and activity book, aimed at eight- to 11-year-olds, was tested in local schools and is now being revised in light of the experience of the last several years.

The renovated Badr House, a 150-year-old traditional Kuwaiti seafront house, built of adobe and comprising several groups of rooms surrounding a common courtyard, is central to the effort to reach out to children with the gifts of the past. It is, in Shaykha Hussah's words, "a living entity; not a locked-up traditional museum, but a functional and creative place, a place where people learn and work and grow." The museum's popular hands-on workshops in arts and crafts were moved there from temporary quarters in 1988. There, both children and adults - 80 percent of them Kuwaitis - study and practice textiles and weaving, calligraphy, metal-work, painting and drawing, bookbinding, woodwork, plaster and ceramics. Abdul Kareem al-Ghadban, DAI assistant curator for special projects and public relations, combines hands-on workshop activities with tours of the adjacent museum and appreciation of objects on display. "The workshops heighten people's understanding of how the ancient objects were made, which in turn increases their appreciation of what they see in the museum," he says. A sense of continuity between the past and the present is the result - a human link between the crafts in the museum and the crafts the workshop participants produce.

We hope that our special children's program will bear fruit," Shaykh Nasser adds, underlining his concern "that the collection be accessible to even the smallest children with an immediate relevance to their own experience. But only the future will tell."

Reflecting on the experience of the past decade and the links that DAI has been able to establish between past and present, Shaykh Nasser summarizes. "I am delighted that, under the guidance of Shaykha Hussah, Dar al-Athar al-Islam-iyyah has become a meeting point for Arab and foreign scholars, educators, craftsmen and ordinary members of the public. The craftsman's skills are absolutely fundamental to the creation of works of art. Let us hope that the students of our craft courses will begin to understand the superb mastery of the generations of potters, masons, metalworkers, jewelers, painters, calligraphers and weavers whose works can be studied so close at hand."

Shaykha Hussah adds, "we have sought not only to make beautiful objects from our past easily accessible to public viewing, but also to educate people, to stimulate them, and to exchange thoughts and ideas with the public and with scholars from the region and the world at large."

Publisher, author and television host Rami Khouri is the head of Ionian's private Friends of Archeology society.


One of the bitter costs of war, after I the loss of life and livelihood, the moral damage to participants, and the long-term economic harm suffered by both belligerents and bystanders, is the disappearance of irreplaceable works of art and the loss of valuable elements of the world's cultural and esthetic heritage.

A recent sad example of such loss is that suffered by Kuwait's National Museum and its Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collection after the Iraqi invasion of that country on August 2. A former researcher at the museum has reported seeing military trucks there being loaded with display cases, and a press representative at Kuwait's embassy in Washington says that "everything valuable has been taken from the museum."

Ironically, however, a small fraction of the museum's finest objects - just over 100 pieces - was outside Kuwait at the time of the invasion. Selected by guest curator Esin Atil (See Aramco World, July August 1987), they were on loan to the Hermitage in Leningrad, and were then intended to go on tour in the United States in 1990 and 1991. "Some of the items I would have liked to include were just too fragile," Atil is quoted as saying regretfully. "There were others that would have been wonderful to include, but I did not think it was right to take all the best objects from the museum for that length of time." Yet the objects she did select - with six others traveling in the "Romance of the Taj Mahal" exhibition - are the only elements of the DAI collection known to have survived the invasion.

The United States exhibition of those objects, called "Islamic Art and Partronage: Selections from Kuwait" and organized by The Trust for Museum Exhibitions, will take place as scheduled, collection director Shaykha Hussan al-Salem Al Sabah announced last month. "The excitement with which we organized the tour has been replaced by a resolve that it continue as planned," she said. "And our objectives for touring have grown from exposing the pleasures of Islamic art-to revealing the peril of a young country with an ancient heritage…Like all civilized people, Kuwaitis believe that a civilization will be remembered not for its conquests, but for its culture."

The tour of "Islamic Arts and Patronage" begins at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore in December and continues to Fort Worth, Atlanta, Richmond and St. Louis in 1991. Partly to provide background for the exhibition, and partly to let our readers know what plans and projects-besides the artifacts - have been lost, this article, assigned more than a year ago, is printed here as scheduled. But we also publish it in hope: hope that the objects now in the United States will not remain the only part of the Kuwait National Museum's collection to be accessible to the public; hope that the Museum's well-planned programs can someday be resumed for the benefit of its visitors; hope that the entire collection - lovingly built, carefully studied, rich in beauty and in the cultural understanding it offers - may somehow soon be rescued from the uncaring fist of war and be reassembled for the amazement, instruction and delight of Arabs and non-Arabs alike.

-The Editors

This article appeared on pages 30-38 of the November/December 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1990 images.