Exploring The Met's Islamic Art Wing

My mind rarely considers the museum’s Islamic section, although I was lucky enough to attend its opening in fall 2011 with my mother.

Exploring The Met's Islamic Art Wing
An installation view of the exhibit "Dialogues: Modern Artists and the Ottoman Past" in the Koç Family Gallery 460. Photo source: The Met

When I think of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), what comes to mind first is, naturally, "Gossip Girl" (2007–2012). Then my mind wanders to my Jesuit high school, Loyola, which is just a couple of avenues east. Finally, my mind settles on the famed Temple of Dendur, standing tall behind massive, Louvre-esque panes of glass that face Central Park.

The temple sits in the museum’s Sackler Wing. Yes, the same Sackler family of pharma-opiate infamy. In 2018, the artist Nan Goldin staged a protest in which activists dumped empty prescription bottles in the moat surrounding the temple. In 2021, the museum announced plans to remove the Sackler name from the wing. 

My mind rarely considers the museum’s Islamic section, although I was lucky enough to attend its opening in fall 2011 with my mother. Delicious hors d'oeuvres were passed around by bow tied waiters along with a stocked open bar — an interesting choice, given we were celebrating Islamic art. My mom and I drank lots of wine, took on the new section fairly quickly, then continued on. We ironically spent most of the opening outside of the newly minted wing, traipsing through the visitor-less European galleries. I made my mom take photos of me on my DSLR camera — a relic of the time, one that I now consider an artifact of my own.

According to The Met’s website, the Islamic Art section boasts over 15 thousand pieces that “reflect the great diversity and range of the cultural traditions of Islam.” The section is tucked away in a difficult-to-access corner of the museum. The easiest way to access the area is by walking through a hallway featuring countless Greco-Roman marble sculptures and ceramics, ones that I — and many others — associate The Met with. Somewhere along the hallway sit a nondescript set of stairs, as well as elevators, which can be used to go up to the second floor, where the Islamic art section is. 

An example of the Islamic art in The Met's collection. Photo source: The Met

When I visited recently, I was surprised by how unceremonious the section’s entrance was. In the museum’s map, the section is titled “the Arab Lands,” a title that, to me, evokes Said’s seminal text, "Orientalism;" that this section of the museum offers visitors an opportunity to travel to the Far East, where people smoke opium and there are belly dancers abound. But perhaps I’m a bit hypersensitive.

The section contains lots of Mughal art, including tons of beautiful miniature paintings — a favorite genre of mine. There are also lots of beautiful pieces of ceramics, many of which are colored an awe-inspiring shade of bright blue. My favorite pieces, however, were the larger-than-life architectural structures — wooden doors, archways, marble and stone, many of which had been intricately and exquisitely carved — that had been surgically removed from their homeland and reimplanted here in New York City.

The Islamic wing goes so far as to even recreate a 1707 reception room from Damascus, calling to mind the museum’s famous period rooms, which tell stories of American interior design throughout a span of about 300 years. 

The Damascus Room, on view at The Met, is a residential reception chamber typical of the late Ottoman period in Damascus, Syria. Photo source: The Met

The Met also seems to be careful to insist the works here haven’t been stolen; a section in the Islamic wing is even titled “The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Excavations in Nishapur.” It features a plaque which explains that a team from The Met excavated what is on display between 1935 and 1948. 

Overall, the Islamic art section features a beautiful variety of objects with some interesting morsels of information scattered throughout. The Museum could certainly do better, though, considering how much of the building’s area is dedicated to showcasing a Euro-centric view of art history. The Islamic section also feels a bit cramped: in order to adequately do justice to the vibrant and centuries-spanning history of Islamic art, there would need to be many, many more galleries.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Fann.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.