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Metropolitan Museum Islamic Art Installation Allows Public to See What Conservators See




Islamic Art Installation at Metropolitan Museum Allows 
Public to See What Conservators See

Exhibition dates: April 2-August 4, 2013
Exhibition location: The Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery

The renovation, expansion, and reinstallation between 2003 and 2011 of the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia at The Metropolitan Museum of Art provided conservators and conservation scientists with an extraordinary opportunity to examine and conserve many works of Islamic art in the permanent collection. Discoveries that were made during this period have enhanced many aspects of the re-installation of the galleries. The exhibition Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art, on view beginning April 2, will demonstrate how our understanding and appreciation of the works of art we see in visible light can be augmented by information gleaned using other wavelengths of light, from infrared to x-rays. Through some 20 examples of works in various materials, and an additional 14 objects in the adjoining galleries, visitors will get a behind-the-scenes look at how the technical expertise and conservation resources available within the Museum are utilized in the study and preservation of Islamic art.

The exhibition is made possible by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund.

While our eyes respond only to visible light, important additional knowledge can be obtained through the use of other kinds of light on the electromagnetic spectrum, including x-rays, ultraviolet radiation, and infrared radiation. The exhibition will show how various kinds of light revealed areas of earlier restorations and repairs as well as new information on the materials originally employed and how this information helped Metropolitan Museum scientists and conservators determine appropriate courses of preventive conservation and loss compensation. The focus will be on the investigation as well as the treatment of objects. Through minimal, non-invasive, and reversible conservation, fragile objects were stabilized and restored to a level sufficient to enhance the public’s appreciation of their aesthetic qualities.

Produced in the late 12th and early 13th century in Iran, mina’i ware consists of highly detailed enamel decoration applied over an opaque white or light blue glaze meant to imitate Chinese porcelain.  Unlike porcelain, however, this stonepaste ceramic was very brittle and most of the surviving mina’i vessels have been reassembled from fragments.  In the past, restorers often combined fragments from different vessels to create what appeared to be complete objects, a fact that can now be understood through a combination of radiography and UV fluorescence photography.  Using digital editing software, conservators can also show curators how an object would appear following various treatment options, before any changes are actually made.

Because of their fragility and susceptibility to light damage, works of art on paper, textiles, and carpets are shown in the galleries for no longer than several months at a time. As demonstrated by the folio called Design for a Cup to Serve Wine at Drinking Parties from a 14th-century manuscript, there can also be an inherent vice in the very materials the artists have used, resulting in deterioration and considerable preservation challenges.  The copper-based pigment used to create this image has attacked the paper itself, resulting in deterioration and embrittlement that must be stabilized for safe handling.  

Tapestry-woven silk carpets with gold—and silver—metal were produced in the late 16th to early 17th century by the Persian royal manufactory in Kashan. Known as “Polonaise” carpets, such textiles adorned the households of Persian and European royalty and nobility, and were often presented as diplomatic gifts.  The use of extremely fine and delicate materials, as well as the double-faced technique found in the Museum’s example, made its treatment very challenging.  In addition, all conservation work had to be fully reversible in order to preserve the integrity of the carpet’s original structure.

Although the paint and metal leaf decoration on the wood panels from the Museum’s 18th-century reception room from Damascus had been darkened irrevocably by the application of later varnishes, analysis allowed for the identification of the pigments and painting mediums that were used.  This information led to a reconstruction being made that recaptures the brilliance of the original decoration.

A brief film within the exhibition highlights recent conservation performed on the celebrated Emperor’s Carpet, an exceptional classical Persian carpet of the 16th century that was presented to Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I by Peter the Great of Russia.

A free brochure, available in the exhibition, will describe conservation that has been done on more than a dozen additional works on view in the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. The brochure, which features objects in a variety of media and a map that locates them in the galleries, was created by Metropolitan Museum conservators and conservation scientists.

Education programs organized in conjunction with the exhibition include gallery talks and conversations led by research scientists and conservators specializing in objects, works on paper, and textiles. Topics include tapestry materials and techniques, the art of the Islamic book, and architectural rooms and elements. In a “Sunday at the Met” program on April 7, conservators will discuss how they examine, restore, and protect works of art before they are displayed.  Islamic stucco carving will be the subject of a How Did They Do That? program. 

The exhibition is organized by the departments of Objects Conservation, Paper Conservation, Textile Conservation, and Scientific Research in collaboration with  the Department of Islamic Art.

An online feature including extensive information about the exhibition and the work of conservators and conservation scientists on objects in the collection of the Department of Islamic Art will be available on the Metropolitan Museum’s website (

The Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery displays rotating installations of works that reveal the depth of the Museum’s Islamic art collection while offering views into innovative, stimulating, and unexplored areas of the field.

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March 18, 2013


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