Benaki Islamic Museum

Susie and I visited the Islamic collection at the Benaki Museum.  Located in an impressive, restored building near the Keramikos, this collection is really remarkable if for nothing other than its aesthetic qualities.

Having visited many museums in Greece over the last couple of months, the Benaki manages to capture some of the curio cabinet feeling of some of the smaller and older museums, while at the same time being quite clean and modern (in a colloquial sense) in its overall presentation of material.  The cases in each of the galleries were packed with spectacular examples of pottery, metal working, and wood according to some chronological and to a certain extent regional organization.  In many instances, however, it seemed that this order would break down with earlier artifacts included alongside later ones and contrasting styles and places of origin superimposed in the same cases.  This may have been intentional (at least, I suspect that it was), but it was left unexplained enticing the viewer to attempt to understand the tacit relationships between objects on aesthetic grounds alone.  This seemed to coincide with the lack of attention to communicating what made Islamic culture particularly Islamic and how particular motifs spoke to anything bigger in the history or society of the time (although they did provide substantial descriptions of the political context for the period presented in each gallery).  This isn’t meant to be a criticism, necessarily, but more an observation offered by someone who knows embarrassingly little about a culture that exerted a profound influence on the history of the Mediterranean world.  In fact, when I taught a M.A. level seminar on the Mediterranean world, it is contained almost nothing on the Islamic world, which is almost inexcusable. 

In some ways this museum stands in contrast to the newer sections of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens which have explicitly moved away from their more cluttered and chaotic style of presentation and arranged artifacts, sculpture and art in chronologically and thematic galleries.  These galleries, which in some ways more austere, promote a more historical and probably “cultural” reading of the material.  Although, it may be that my knowledge of the material ensure that the displays and organization resonate more clearly with my internalized narrative of events and cultural developments.

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