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Islamic metalwork from the Courtauld at History of Science Museum

photo of an ornate round face of an astrolabe - a clock like device with hands

Astrolabe with Lunar Mansions. Abd al-Karim, Syria, 1227–28 CE.

The Courtauld’s collection of Islamic treasures heads to Oxford History of Science Museum as they open their doors again

A stunning array of objects on loan from The Courtauld, many never seen outside of London before, is paired with a modern day interpretation on Islamic metalwork spanning the 11th to 16th centuries, as Oxford’s History of Science Museum reopens its doors to the public.

Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld combines a physical exhibition at the museum with a full online exhibition that includes objects and stories exploring how the intersections of cultures across the Islamic world influenced the creation of some of the finest metalwork ever produced.

The finely crafted objects in the museum’s physical display include a delicate candlestick made to a precise size and weight, rare brass bowls inlaid with silver and a 14th century bucket for everyday use, all elaborately designed. They are displayed alongside the History of Science Museum’s own world-class collection of scientific instruments from the Islamic World.

Boasting an unrivalled collection of historic scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building, the Old Ashmolean on Oxford’s Broad Street, the museum is widely acknowledged as occupying a special position, both in the study of the history of science and in the development of museum culture and collecting.

reverse view of brass astrolabe

The reverse of the Astrolabe with Lunar Mansions. Abd al-Karim, Syria, 1227–28 CE.

a photo of a metal engraved box wiht drawing instruments laid out before it

Set of Drawing Instruments. Italy, early 1500s CE.

a photo of an engraved metal globe in a stand

Celestial globe. Ja’far ibn ‘Umar ibn Dawlatshah al-Kirmani, Iran, 1362–63 CE.

This latest foray into world of precision object making includes examples of the intricate and refined craft and artistry that made these metal pieces so renowned – and imitated – by civilisations around the globe. Motifs include elaborate signs of the zodiac, constellations, the planets and coats of arms.

A highlight of the exhibition is a woman’s metal handbag, the only surviving example of its kind and a signature object in the Courtauld collection.

Known as the Courtauld Handbag, it was made in the early 14th century in Mosul, northern Iraq for an important woman based in the courtly circles of the Ilkhanid dynasty. Decorated with images of eight musicians playing instruments, it has long been held as a key object illustrating the incredible metalworking skills that have been passed down through the generations.

And in a marked departure from traditional curatorial practice, the accompanying online exhibition www.hsm.ox.ac.uk/islamicmetalwork has been developed in partnership with Oxford-based volunteers who have a real cultural connection to the objects, and they each provide their own perspective based on their personal and cultural knowledge.

Many of them came to the UK as forced migrants from countries including Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Sudan and they share their own objects in the online exhibition to build on and complement the objects from The Courtauld and the History of Science Museum.

Many of the volunteers have been working with the museum for some time as part of a project called Multaka, which means ‘meeting place’ in Arabic.

photo of an engraved bowl in metal

Bucket of engraved brass with silver inlay, Iran (North-West) or Turkey (Anatolia) or Mamluk, 15th-16th century. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

a photo of an engraved concave bowl

Bowl of brass, formerly inlaid with silver, engraved with floral decoration, Mamluk, late 14th or early 15th century, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

an egraved brass sphere inlaid with silver figures

Incense burner of pierced and engraved brass inlaid with silver, with images of the planets within roundels, Mamluk (Syria) 13th century. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

One volunteer, Jonathan Fruchter, has created an interactive digital programme through which online visitors can design their own Islamic inspired patterns.

“I was amazed by the intricacy of the patterns of some of the objects,” he says. “I decided to digitize the pattern on the handbag and was inspired to create a symmetric-pattern-generating computer programme. The programme is based on the “type” of symmetry most common in Islamic art and allows the user to design their own Islamic-influenced repetitive patterns with just a few lines and brush strokes.

“Mathematics is usually perceived as intimidating and very dry. I think that this exhibition is a great opportunity to share a bit of my knowledge and show people that maths can be beautiful and fun.”

The extra knowledge and understanding the volunteers have brought to the objects is also being added to the museum’s database and shared with the wider community through multi- lingual events, tours, blogs and displays. Working practices have also become more inclusive and collaborative as a result of the project.

The Cultures in Conversation online exhibition will include all the objects and stories from the physical exhibition, with opportunities to explore additional content and get close-up with more information via videos offering behind the scenes access with the curator and Multaka volunteers.

a photo of a brass engraved candlestick

Candlestick of cast bronze engraved and inlaid with silver Eastern Anatolian,Turkey, late 13th century. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

a photo of an engraved purse

Metalwork bag, Mosul, Northern Iraq 1300 – 1330. Brass with silver and gold inlay. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

detail of brass and inlaid silver engraving of a figure

Detail from the metalwork bag. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld, London.

Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld Cultures in Conversation is at The History of Science Museum, Oxford from October 9 2020 – January 10 2021. Free admission but pre-booking is required.

Visit www.hsm.ox.ac.uk/islamicmetalwork 


History of Science Museum

Oxford, Oxfordshire

The History of Science Museum houses the world's finest collection of early scientific instruments from Europe and the Islamic World, including sundials and astrolabes of extraordinary beauty. More modern objects include microscopes, scientific models, photographic and wireless equipment – and a blackboard still bearing calculations by Albert Einstein. The entire…

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