Museum's Decision to Delay Islamic Art Exhibit Sparks Criticism

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that the Frick’s decision “perpetuates the harmful stereotype that Muslims or Islamic art are synonymous with terrorism or antisemitism.”

Museum's Decision to Delay Islamic Art Exhibit Sparks Criticism
The Frick Pittsburgh has been asked by local Muslim and Jewish advocates to reconsider its decision and post the exhibit without delay.

Years ago, the Pittsburgh art museum Frick Pittsburgh had planned to showcase Islamic art spanning 10 centuries in an exhibition called "Treasured Ornament." The exhibit — which was set to feature paintings, weaponry, ceramics, fine glassware and other pieces from the Middle East — was planned to open in November 2023. But now, the museum has decided to postpone the exhibition. Originally citing a scheduling conflict, leaked emails now suggest that the Israel-Gaza war influenced the decision to postpone. This move has sparked criticism from both Muslim and Jewish groups, who see it as perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

Elizabeth Barker, the museum’s executive director, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that after the war began, the staff “realized that we were about to open an exhibition that a forgiving person would call insensitive, but for many people, especially in our community, would be traumatic.”

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that the Frick’s decision “perpetuates the harmful stereotype that Muslims or Islamic art are synonymous with terrorism or antisemitism.” A representative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh told The Washington Post that, “We don’t want the American Jewish community to be blamed for things as a group any more than we want American Muslims to be blamed for anything as a group because they’re not responsible as a religion.”

Most recently, Barker announced that the "Treasured Ornament" exhibition will now open in August 2024; she did not respond to questions about how the museum came to this decision. In her statement, Barker expressed regret over the clumsy communication regarding the postponement and pledged to repair the Frick’s relationships with the Muslim community. The museum aims to receive input from the local Muslim community before the exhibition's rescheduled opening.

According to Barker’s statement, the Frick decided to postpone the exhibition “with the intention of making it better” on Oct. 16, just one week after the Israel-Gaza war began. Barker said museum staff examined the curation and “became concerned about the light historical context and the western lens of our team.” This context was missing when the exhibition was originally postponed. 

Some Muslim civil rights groups have called for the museum to reconsider its decision to postpone, emphasizing the importance of celebrating cultural diversity. In a statement last week, CAIR-Pittsburgh Executive Director Christine Mohamed described the decision to postpone as “disturbing.” Mohamed continued by saying that, “This false perspective not only disregards the vast and diverse Islamic world that extends far beyond the Middle East but also undermines the essence of cultural diversity and appreciation that art represents.”

Jewish groups have also expressed support for the exhibit, stating it should not be connected to the ongoing events in Palestine.

While "Treasured Ornament" remains postponed, the museum has opened "The Red Dress," an exhibition which features embroidery work from more than 380 contributors, including some Ukrainian and Palestinian refugees. According to the Frick’s website, the exhibition’s “message of communion across cultures offers visitors an experience of hope, solace and understanding so many are seeking right now.”

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