Ismaili Muslim community donates treasures to UBC Museum of Anthropology

Published: April 24, 2013
UBC Museum of Anthropology

UBC Museum of Anthropology Director Anthony Alan Shelton (from left to right), Manager of Administration Salma Mawani and Curator Carol Mayer at the museum Wednesday, April 24, 2013. The trio are standing in front of a display of items gained with the help of the Ismaili community. Jason Payne/PNG

LARISSA CAHUTE
VANCOUVER DESI

The latest addition to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology tells tales of centuries of travel among the Muslim community, in which trade objects, ideas and culture crossed vast expanses of land and water.

The Ismaili Muslim community donated the new pieces on display, which include a 19th century incense set, brightly coloured in turquoise with a gold and floral print, a 17th century ceramic dish with a blue Arabic script and a sheet of the Qur’an, dating back to the ninth century.

“Most objects have had long journeys,” said the museum’s curator, Carol Mayer. “The travelling of ceramics is interesting because they travel all over the world.”

And these objects travelled along the  famous Silk Road, which starts in China and crosses land and sea to end in Europe.

“Muslims were great traders, so they followed these routes,” said Mayer. “Those objects, to me, talk about those travels and also the travel of Islam itself.”

“[The items] refer to the mobility of objects and culture and ideas, and how they moved from one place to another in a time when there were no telephones or anything else.”

According to Mayer, the ceramic dish was made for a king and each of the three items carries some kind of Arabic scripture or calligraphy.

The piece of the Qur’an is particularly interesting, because it displays a form of calligraphy that has proven illegible — the museum has not been able to find someone who can transcribe its message.

“The interesting thing with the words on them is that they carry a message,” said Mayer. “They also are a way of transmitting ideas, transmitting cultural ideas, a way of talking about religion.”

But perhaps the most significant point about the latest exhibit is that the items are permanent fixtures — donated by the Ismaili Muslim community.

“This is a rare occurrence, for a community to give something to the museum like this,” said Mayer. “It’s … an extension of our relationship that started with the community in 2001,” which marked the community’s first exhibit at the museum, The Spirit of Islam.

The relationship with the community will even extend across the country, as a similar ceramic dish will be on display in Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, slated to open in 2014.

But for the UBC museum’s manager of administration, Salma Mawani, the Vancouver donation is a momentous occasion for her as a Muslim.

“These were out in Europe and purchased for the Museum of Anthropology,” Mawani said. “Our Islamic art that we have right now — the manuscripts are beautiful, but other than that we really didn’t have anything.

“So it’s very, very valuable to the community because these are pieces that they would not be able to see anywhere else.

“They’re priceless.”

The donation coincides with the museum’s Safar/Voyage exhibit, in which  contemporary works by Arab, Iranian and Turkish artists are on display until Sept. 15. The gift from the Ismaili Muslim community is on display permanently.

lcahute@theprovince.com
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