My goal for the summer has been to pull the college's collections of Islamic art into some sort of order, and to prepare an exhibition for Carpenter Library.
It's been a productive week on both counts. On Monday I was able to identify a bowl that was gifted to us in the 1990s. It is, as it turns out, a fine example of a medieval Iranian ware produced under the Seljuqs (probably in the 12th century C.E.). A white ceramic body, composed mostly of crushed quartz, was molded, pierced, and painted with blue streaks before being covered with a transparent alkaline glaze. At the time of its manufacture this would have been a humble piece of tableware, but to a modern of my aesthetic sensibilities it's a fine work of art. On Tuesday I had a look at a number of our ceramics under a UV light to assess their condition and to detect repairs. This was particularly revealing in the case of a Safavid (16th century) tile decorated with the bust of a woman - under the UV, modern overpainting was clearly visible. On Wednesday I looked at manuscripts with my colleague Yael Rice (who is, unlike myself, literate in Persian). Yael was able to read the colophon on a Sufi manuscript which, as we now know, was produced in 1527 in Tabriz. Thursday was carpets, and today Tamara Johnston and I met with the librarians in Carpenter to discuss improving the exhibition space for the fall.
As with any exhibition, the intellectual challenge of this project lies in accommodating the arbitrary. It's never possible, whether at Bryn Mawr or the British Museum, to manufacture a complete image of a past era. Instead we're presented with fragments, and must find some way to weave them into a narrative that is both honest and compelling. Thus every well-conceived exhibit is simultaneously a critique and a defense of the practice of history.