By Venetia Porter, curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East for the British Museum and the lead curator behind the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World
I started working at the British Museum in London nearly 30 years ago, just in time to help with the opening of the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art. It was the first time the museum had opened a substantial gallery devoted to the art of the Islamic world. Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, attended its inauguration. It was a grand, very exciting affair and I was lucky to be a part of it.
Located on the north side of the building, the gallery was beautiful but small and focused solely on Islamic art. We had more objects that we wanted to show and more stories to tell so in 2014, we started thinking about expanding the gallery. When the Albukhary Foundation in Malaysia generously agreed to support a move out of the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art and fund a refurbishment of two rooms on the first floor of the museum, we couldn’t believe our luck.
These rooms had once housed medieval European collections but had been closed for some time. When they were cleared, it became obvious there was a lot of work to do. The museum embarked on a massive renovation, working first with HOK architects, who shored up the structure of the building, and then with architects and exhibition designers Stanton Williams. The abandoned rooms were transformed into something absolutely magnificent; the original mouldings and the beautiful high ceilings were restored, providing an immaculate shell for what we had planned for the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, which opened to the public last month.
Back in 2014, it was left to me and the other five curators to figure out what objects from the British Museum’s collection to display and then, working with the designers, exactly how to put them on show. That was not an easy task.
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