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Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia completes a decade of enthralling visitors
By Habib Shaikh
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 25 - 01 - 2010

The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) in Kuala Lumpur, which has recently completed a decade of existence, has rightly been described as a landmark achievement in the twenty-two years during which Dr. Mahathir Mohamed was Prime Minister of Malaysia. “Ten years ago, it was a new and highly original venture. Nothing of this type had ever been created in this apart of the world …,” he remarked during the celebration where Saudi Gazette was present.
According to him, IAMM has become a focal point of cultural activity. “Not only has the collection grown substantially, but the displays have also acquired greater dynamism,… and (the museum) has become a global ambassador of Islamic art,” he said.
Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, the chairman of IAMM, said that although much has changed at the IAMM since it first opened, its continuity of purpose to be a “custodian, preserver and educator,” has been a vital factor in its progress.
“When an institution is built on solid principles it stands as a beacon, attracting the right sort of attention and becoming a bastion of learning and education,” he stated. “Ignorance is an agent of misunderstanding, and through lack of understanding come many of the woes that afflict our world. By encouraging the light of knowledge, the result is a dawn of comprehension that is of as much value to Muslims as to those of other faiths.”
Al-Bukhary stressed that the contents of the museum are of undeniable beauty, but it is their value in expanding knowledge and diminishing intolerance that has excited him most over the past ten years. He added that there is a shared human experience that can be derived from many Islamic artifacts.
“The museum has taken special care to show the Islamic world in its entirety… Whether the artifacts are from the Malay Peninsula, Spain, or sub-Saharan Africa, the collection aims to represent the full breadth of Islamic culture, - a culture of dazzling range and diversity. At the same time, the universality of certain principles becomes evident when works of so many different origins are placed alongside each other,” he explained.
Museum Director Syed Mohamed Al-Bukhary remarked: “The growth of some museums is measured in centuries. For others, 10 years is a milestone. At IAMM, time has been accelerated in true 21st century fashion, taking it from the drawing board (stage) to drawing crowds and acclaim in just over a decade.”
But he hastened to add that IAMM will not be resting on its laurels, and explained that the aim of the museum is to display the broadest selection of art from the Islamic world. “Through a continuous process of acquisition, the inventory has grown from 500 in 1999, to almost 2,400. The process of building a collection is never easy in a field with a limited quantity of genuine material available,” he said, and added that it has been made more difficult by the growing awareness that has taken place in recent years. “With different parts of the Islamic world buying back their heritage, the competition has become intense. Despite this, the IAMM has still been able to obtain many fine pieces, some of which have come from highly distinguished collections.”
Al-Bukhary said that the Middle East in particular has seen a phenomenal growth of interest in the field, “which has been translated into spectacular new museums” in the Gulf region, along with a number of ambitious projects that are at the planning stage. In the rest of the world, established collections of Islamic art are being enhanced and re-displayed. In addition to the purchases made by IAMM, there have been gifts from private collectors.
Al-Bukhary said that the work of the IAMM has been recognized by leading arbiters of global, art commitment. In 2003, it received the IRCICA Award for Patronage in the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and Promotion of Scholarship. IRCICA – Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture – is the Istanbul-based arm of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which is headquartered in Jeddah. In the same year, IAMM became the first recipient in Southeast Asia of the Montblanc Arts and Patronage Award.
He said IAMM has been bringing an international dimension to Malaysia since it opened with “Zarabi: Reflections of an Ideal World,” from the Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah Collection, Kuwait. “The British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, and the National Museum of India, are among the many museums that have collaborated with IAMM.
IAMM also conducts a number of traveling exhibitions. Besides being an occasional recipient IAMM has, on a smaller scale, participated in loans to other museums. “Perhaps the most notable loan artifacts to have been displayed here are Iznik vessels from the British Museum.
This long-term arrangement has enabled visitors at IAMM to see some of the finest examples of a type of ceramic that is as much admired as anything within the field of Islamic art,” remarked Al-Bukhary. “With the longstanding interest that exists in this area of collecting, artifacts such as the British Museum's Iznik works are now almost unobtainable.”
The IAMM comprises of a Conservation Center, Scholar's Library, Education Department, and Galleries and Display Unit. The Conservation Center is engaged in analytical, interventive and preventive conservation. The Center has four large laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment.
Al-Bukhary commented that the conservators are guided by a code of ethics that is standard throughout the international conservation community – retreatability, compatibility, and minimum intervention.
The IAMM research library is known as the Scholar's Library. The core library started as early as 1999 with a small number of books placed within the Curatorial Affairs office. However, Al-Bukhary remarked that the library was a private working one and admission was solely through appointment; it is not open for walk-in visitors. Scholars, students of institutes of higher learning, private researchers, museum experts and conservators who wish to visit and conduct research at the Scholar's Library can forward a request to the librarian in writing or by email. Library information is also available on the website -
The Education Department encourages the public to develop a hands-on approach in the pursuit of learning. Workshops are an essential element of the department's strategy. There are courses in Islamic calligraphy.
It also has a children's library, which organizes story telling sessions combined with arts and crafts workshop for children under 12 years of age. To encourage reading among children it has introduced a system called ‘Clips' - Children's Library Passport - under which bronze, silver and gold certificates are awarded to those who complete reading 25, 50 and 100 books respectively.
The Galleries and Display unit is responsible for creating the visual element of special, exhibitions as well as the handling and display of artifacts in the permanent galleries and traveling exhibitions. There are 12 permanent galleries – Architecture, Qur'an and Manuscript, India, China, Malay World, Jewelry, Textiles, Arms and Armor, Living with Wood, Coin and Seal, Metalwork, and Ceramics and Glass. All are characterized by order, simplicity, vastness, extensive natural light, color, and constant evolvement.

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