Buckinghamshire County Museum Trust launch the Art of Islam Exhibition & Festival
Saturday, June 18th, 2016
Bucks County Museum is housed in a modest but picturesque building nestling in Aylesbury in the lee of the Chiltern Hills. With a large and increasingly diverse local community, the Museum has responded to changing and challenging local and international circumstances to develop an inclusive exhibition and festival inspired by high-minded sentiments regarding community integration and the power of art and culture.
The story begins in 2014 when a new body was set up to “externalise” museum services from the Buckinghamshire County Council with Richard De Peyer appointed as the Buckinghamshire County Museum Trust Director.
From April through to September 2016, Bucks County Museum is hosting an exciting new exhibition and festival entitled “The Art of Islam”. This is quite an innovative departure for a comparatively small county museum.
What has prompted this highly creative enterprise and widespread community collaboration? MuslimView hears from Museum Director, Richard De Peyer and other staff, trustees, a private collector and local residents as to how this project got off the ground and why it is so important:
Inspiration: why an Art of Islam Exhibition and why a Festival?
Bucks County Museum had no history of engaging with different ethnic groups nor involving them in the development of culture or artistic life in the area. The Museum was not even engaged in collecting artefacts to do with Islamic culture or the Muslim populations here in the UK. Consequently, it was felt that whatever else happened within the new Trust, this state of affairs needed to be addressed. At the inaugural meeting of trustees in August 2014, the idea of an Art of Islam Exhibition was hatched. It was hoped that it would highlight the cultural and artistic contributions of Islamic civilization and was enthusiastically welcomed by the trustees.
“It was felt important to rollout whatever activity we engaged in across the county in order to reach as many people from as many diverse walks of life and background as possible. We conceived the core as an exhibition, and as exhibitions are generally a mainstream pursuit for all museums, we decided to extend this to put us outside of our normal comfort zone and involve art and social history along with a heightened community input and connection”.
Richard de Peyer, Director BCM
It was with this high principle in mind that Richard de Peyer and his staff, successfully secured a generous Arts Council grant amongst others, to deliver an Art of Islam Exhibition and Festival starting in April this year and running through to September.
“We’d put in for grant applications from the Arts Council, County Council, Chiltern District Council, AVDC, MK and we got some money from all of them, but the biggest tranche of money, £50000, came from the Arts Council and that wasn’t granted until 23rd January of this year, so we had no contract in place before 23rd January and took until early March to get the brochure produced so it was quite late for an April 1st start!”
Richard has described the The Art of Islam Exhibition as one of the biggest and most thorough exhibitions that have been done in recent years by the Museum. It includes loans from the British Museum, the Horniman Museum, the Bodleian Library, Birmingham City Museum Art and Gallery, but most of all from a local private collector, Razwan Baig.
“Razwan has a huge private collection and a passion for Islamic art, and what is on display from him is just ‘scratching the surface’ of his private collection”, says Richard. “We are indebted to him for his foresight and generosity”.
A journey of development, why reach out to the local Muslim population in Buckinghamshire?
The mainstay of the Museum until this point had been focussed on the more distant past and stopped well short of major migrations from the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere in the 60s and 70s and as a consequence a large swathe of the local population in Buckinghamshire remained invisible on a cultural and artistic level.
“Our collections were rooted in the past with strong rural and craft representation but little that reflected the heritage of the important Muslim minority population that is settled in Bucks today.”
Will Philips, Keeper of Social History at BCM
As a result, engagement with the Muslim community and other diverse ethnic communities was low.
“The Museum trustees felt that the museum was not providing any services to nor engagement with the local Muslim population of Buckinghamshire, and the Museum had a duty to improve on this situation as a key to good integration and community cohesion especially in times of increased international conflict.”
Dr. Robert Sutcliffe, Chairman of Trustees, BCM
Why is Islamic Culture and art of importance to the local non-Muslim population?
Although engagement with the local Muslim community in Buckinghamshire was a key aim, another source of concern was the need to share positive associations of Islamic culture and art with the local non-Muslim population. Richard de Peyer was fortunate in finding a crucial partner in local High Wycombe resident, scholar of calligraphy and art collector, Razwan Baig and this collaboration provided a dynamic chemistry essential to the eventual success of the exhibition and festival.
“Today, more than ever, art needs to be understood. Confusion is causing global misunderstandings. But I believe art can build bridges between our cultural islands. Islamic art, much like Islam, can be opaque to many.
Being an avid collector of Islamic art, I felt it was my duty to showcase the artisanal side of Islam through my humble collection and knowledge.”
People thrive where there is mutual respect. Civilisation is built on it. Futures are better for it. Humanity must arm itself with ideas, art and justice and with social inclusion.”
Razwan Baig, private collector
“The main aim was to encourage access to the Museum for hard to reach groups who have not traditionally visited us, especially from the local Asian community and with this in mind we started to design a diverse range of attractive and unusual art workshops and lectures on the subject of Islam and Islamic culture and art and ethics.
But an equally important aim was to make understood the great diversity and richness of Islamic culture and art to the non-Muslim population in order to give an alternative and more tolerant impression of Islam in these difficult and sometimes violent times.”
Siobhan Bygate, Festival Coordinator, BCM
However, the initiative does not stop with the varied exhibition, it is accompanied by an entertaining festival catering for all ages and interests.
“We knew we were going to do the exhibition”, Richard de Peyer said “but what we didn’t know is that we were going to attach a festival to it and how quickly this would have to be brought together given the late arrival of the Arts Council award!”
Locations and community groups around the county have been contributing to, attending and hosting events and workshops relating to the exhibition, ranging from arabesque painting and illuminated border design, to calligraphy and ceramic tile design through to plasterwork carving and stained glass making workshops amongst many other events.
“But we also thought it important to go beyond a purely artistic offering, and so the festival includes fun and tasty events such as Curry on Halima food demonstrations, a shadow puppet theatre for children, storytelling from the Islamic world for both children and adults and a fantastic Eid party at Bucks County Museum on Saturday 9th July with Iranian music and fun and games and a community art installation with local Muslim modern artist, Teakster.”
“Lastly, we have a series of fantastic lectures across the County ranging from Islamic Coinage to Islamic Garden Design, Textiles from the Islamic world, Islamic architecture and Farming Ethics and the Muslim farmer, to name but a few.”
What has proved most popular so far?
“So many of the events have proved very engrossing for those attending and we have received some great feedback. I think my favourite responses are from the children and from senior citizens who maybe are engaging with various art and cultural activities for the first time.
We had one attendee, who drove all the way home to collect a book he had in his library which he thought was of great interest to other attendees.
And another enthusiastic child on the tile making workshop who stated, ‘this is better than minecraft!’”
It was felt that repeated media stories relating to acts of terrorism and violence has inadvertently created a barrier for non-Muslims to develop a rounded appreciation of the rich, liberal and tolerant expression of Islam through art and culture and for this reason the Museum has invited high profile individuals to open selected events to show their support and to highlight the opportunities.
“We have the new Chief Executive of Bucks County Council attending the Eid party at BCM on Saturday 9th July and on Saturday 27th August, we have Milly Soames, High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and enthusiastic supporter of the exhibition and festival opening the Faraz Yousufzai Concert, ‘From the Desert to the Bronx’ at Arts4 Every1 in High Wycombe.
Last but not least we have Chesham Mayor, Noel Brown, opening the Shadow Puppet Theatre at Chesham Town Hall and more soon to be confirmed.”
Vicky Scrivens, BCM’s Learning Manager, is also working in 10 secondary schools across the county and doing workshops for arts awards for local children during the May bank holidays and with school groups until the end of term in July.
In addition, drama workshops from Khayaal Theatre Company and geometric art workshops from Milton Keynes based Anouar Kassim and Maryam Smit are being delivered to selected secondary schools and community youth groups across the county so that as many young people as possible benefit from these activities.
“The schools programme is bringing skilled practitioners from design and drama backgrounds into secondary schools across the county and our own museum workshops delivered in the summer holidays will qualify primary school aged children for the Arts Council’s Bronze level Arts Award qualification equivalent to a GCSE level pass”
David Erskine, Visitor Services and Formal Learning Manager, BCM
What particular difficulties did you face, not just operationally, but in terms of the general public considering the media’s portrayal of Islam and Muslims and where there any objections people raised?
“We faced no ‘political’ issues as we are a very respected and established organisation and people generally respect our activities. We’ve tried to get the word out as thoroughly as we can within the Muslim community and have spoken at Friday prayers in High Wycombe, Aylesbury and in Chesham”.
“We have also engaged with community representatives from all over Buckinghamshire both from Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds. We have been met unfailingly with enthusiasm and encouragement and sometimes with a sense of relief that at last someone was doing something positive which reflected well on the local Muslim population and this was encouraging to underrepresented ethnic groups.”
The exhibition as been live now for a few weeks, how has the general public received it?
“The exhibition has been really well attended, I’m expecting it to grow, and probably in about six weeks we’ll get the maximum numbers. Local press and media have been quite receptive, but we’ve not much interest from Muslim media thus far though and we’d like much more involvement.
We also have a variety of local VIPs opening our various events to highlight interest to the wider public and are planning regular press coverage.”
How did you get the Ambassador of Kuwait involved?
“We tried a few people actually, we tried to get Prince Charles because he is interested in and involved with inter-faith work. One of the organisations we visited early on was The Prince’s School for Traditional Arts which is very strong on Islamic Arts. Although HRH wasn’t available we have invited him to attend privately if his personal commitments allow. In the end we got the chairman of our patrons, Lord Howe, to write to the Ambassador of Kuwait, his Excellency Khaled Al-Duwaisan, both in his capacity as Ambassador of Kuwait and as the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. “
“The Ambassador is widely respected in the Muslim world as well as the wider world, he is also committed to inter-faith and cultural relations.
He was a great speaker at the launch and really broke the ice with the audience and started the Exhibition and Festival with a flourish with anecdotes about camels and diplomats!”
What aims and objectives do you hope this exhibition and festival will achieve in terms of new Museum visitors?
“For us it is really important that we attract young people from a Pakistani background and to continue the early engagement many have with the museum from their school days. By continuing to work with Muslim groups once the exhibition finishes in September, we hope to break down barriers that have tended to discourage Muslim grown-ups from attending and we will be preparing new long term displays that reflect the 20th century migrations and link Bucks history with echoes through time in Pakistani history too”
Out of all the exhibits on show, what stands out for you?
“The Mughal pieces: Mughal culture dominated most of North India for 600 years, it was the most established culture, a fantastic cultural flowering from about 1100 to about 1750. It was such an important period and a period later on in which they were coming up against the British Raj and the East India Company as well. The Mughals had huge resources at their disposal, as the states were very wealthy and with strong international connections. So we find people like, Buckinghamshire resident Sir Gore Ouseley, ambassador to Persia and some of the Indian Mughal states who collected miniature paintings and brought them back to England and are now mainly in The Bodleian Library. We’ve borrowed three fantastic pieces from the beginning of the 1400s and which we had to insure rather heavily!”.Richard
Has the Museum achieved its objectives and how does the Museum hope to build on these new relationships for the future?
“It’s been really great to be engaged with this exhibition and we have all met so many really nice and helpful people, all of whom have been willing to engage with and support the Museum and its contribution to local cultural and artistic development, and to bring this to a much wider range of people within the community it serves.”
“It’s quite unusual, outside of cities where there are large migrant populations, for museums to get much involved with Muslim and Islamic culture and arts generally and we are really proud to be able to say that Buckinghamshire and Bucks County Museum is a step ahead of the game in this respect.”
“That’s a good question, we want to cement relations with the Muslim communities so that we can get on with future work with them – on more exhibitions, specialist subjects, collecting history and reminiscences about the stories of migration into Buckinghamshire. We also want to break down the fear amongst some Pakistani and Muslim families that coming to the Museum is not for them, although, to be fair, many of the display items don’t seem to be specifically meant for them at the moment. We are extending floor space across our county museums in the future and are likely to have a much more diverse set of exhibits. Watch this space!”
Report by Dr. Siobhan Bygate, Bygate Research & Consultancy Ltd. on behalf of MuslimView