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Volume 44, Number 3May/June 1993

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An Ashmolean Dream

Written and photographed by Arthur Clark

Have a cup of coffee with Dr. James Allan, curator of eastern art at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, and you'll hear about a dream.

In the mid-1970's, Allan - then assistant curator - pioneered Oxford's master of philosophy course in Islamic art and architecture. Today, he's after even bigger game: He wants to establish a center for the study of Islamic art and art history to capitalize on the Ashmolean's treasures, and recruit and train students from the Middle East, to broaden a field long dominated by the West.

"I'd love to see the Middle East, with its own scholars, curators, researchers and students, taking the study of Islamic art forward," says Allan, who is himself an expert on Islamic ceramics and metalwork. "They need to come to the West and see what we have to offer, then go back to their own countries and develop in their own directions, with a new dynamic they can provide."

The author and editor of a number of books on his specialties, Allan says a feel for the "geography" of the Middle East gives an added dimension to his work. Last June, he journeyed to Iran to research steelmaking there from the 14th century to today.

The Ashmolean, England's first public museum, was founded in 1683 and houses Oxford's art and archeological collections. Just one of its many galleries - the Reitlinger - shows off Islamic artifacts. But what's there, and what's stored on the floor above, makes the museum a wonderful resource for scholars.

Its 1200-piece Islamic ceramics collection is unrivaled in depth, says Allan. "If you want to study one type of object, we have 20 to 30 examples of the type, to enable you to see the differences, the variations and the artistic possibilities of it. That's very important when you compare the Ashmolean with museums in other countries."

The Ashmolean also boasts an outstanding collection of Islamic metalwork. At its heart are pieces lent by the family of the late Palestinian-Lebanese Nuhad es-Said (See Aramco World, November-December 1985), which came to the museum after Allan catalogued them in 1982.

Other prizes include textile fragments from medieval Cairo and fine examples of carved and inlaid wood. The Heberden Coin Room, under another curator, has a strong line of Islamic coins.

Despite these assets, just three Middle Eastern students - two Palestinians and a Libyan - have earned degrees in Islamic art and architecture at Oxford. Partly in a bid to attract students from the Mideast, a new bachelor's degree course that would pave the way for advanced studies is starting this autumn.

Meanwhile, endowments from the Arab world have recently enabled Oxford to bolster the staff that works with Islamic material culture, and provided a scholarship for its one-year master of studies degree in Islamic art. Allan hopes to raise more scholarship money for students from the Muslim world.

Finally, Oxford is considering a plan to establish an Islamic Center as part of a university-wide program grouping facilities to focus on the origins of civilizations. That could dovetail with Allan's own ideas.

So the dream is very much alive. It would make the Ashmolean a "staging post" on the road to strengthening the study of Islamic art in its own homeland, says Allan, "and thus enrich us all."

Arthur Clark, museum-goer and Saudi Aramco staff writer, lives in Dhahran.

This article appeared on pages 18-19 of the May/June 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1993 images.