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Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia: Sacred and Splendid


An Indian ivory chess set on display in the Living with Wood Gallery.

An Indian ivory chess set on display in the Living with Wood Gallery.

The award-winning Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia is making its presence very much felt around the globe.

From beautifully embroidered prayer mats to finely crafted ceramics, from the delicate strokes of Arabic calligraphy to the mighty domes on great mosques, the Muslim world has always been a paradise of artistic beauty and splendour.

This should come as little surprise: after all, the artisans and craftsmen of the ancient Islamic world prided themselves in their work, creating objects that were not only sturdy to use but also pleasing to the eye.

Those wanting to appreciate the wonders of Islamic artwork in all its shapes and forms should drop by the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, the first and largest museum of its kind in South-East Asia. Occupying 30,000sq m, and housing over 8,000 artefacts, the Museum aims to create a collection truly representative of the Islamic world.

The Architecture Gallery of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia features scale models of some of the most famous sights in Islamic history.
The Architecture Gallery of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia features scale models of some of the most famous sights in Islamic history.

The museum is highly acclaimed: this year, it won the Kuala Lumpur Mayor’s Tourism Award for the best Tourist Attraction. It was also named the top museum in Malaysia, and the 10th in Asia, for the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice awards for museums around the globe.

“The Islamic Arts Museum has been named Malaysia’s top museum in this year’s Traveller’s Choice Awards thanks to the feedback shared by millions of travellers around the world. They are able to learn more about Islamic art through the thousands of artefacts displayed at the museum,” said TripAdvisor spokesperson Jean Ow-Yeong.

A sleek modern building of steel and glass, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia first opened on Dec 12, 1998. The brainchild of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Museum came into being from a partnership between the Malaysian government and the Albukhary Foundation.

Visitors to the museum will, no doubt, be astounded at the amount of detail put into its architecture.

Its iwan-style entrance (a vaulted space used as an entrance) is built to resemble a ceramic tapestry, which incorporates words from the Quran. On the roof, its turquoise coloured domes are lined with tiles from Iran, the interior engraved with stucco from Uzbekistan.

The interior of one of the museum's domes, which are lined with stucco from Uzbekistan.
The interior of one of the museum's domes, which are lined with stucco from Uzbekistan.

The museum’s interior is designed to maintain a seamless continuity of light and space, which carries through the galleries and into every area of the museum.

“The idea was to create a duality. A contemporary structure, housing artefacts with a historical background. Light is very important here: God is the light of the universe,” said Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Curatorial Affairs Department Head Dr Heba Nayel Barakat.

“The museum is built in a very modern, comfortable way, with a visitor friendly atmosphere. There are no rooms to make you feel closed. It is an open space, which gives you a feeling of freedom and liberation.”

The museum comprises 12 permanent galleries, each highlighting a different type of Islamic artwork, including Jewellery, Textiles, Metalwork, Coins and Seals, Ceramics and Glassware, Architecture, and Quran and Manuscripts. These also include galleries dedicated to India, China and the Malay world, three of the great centres of Islamic culture in Asia.

A tourist takes a photo of an archway on display in the Chinese Gallery.
A tourist takes a photo of an archway on display in the Chinese Gallery.

All exhibits are accompanied by placards with commentary written in English, Malay and Arabic.

Highlights include a display of the sitara (the cloth covering the door of the Ka'abah) and the Standard Chartered Ottoman room – the actual interior of a 19th century Ottoman Syrian house. The Architecture Gallery also features scale models of some of the greatest places in Islamic history, including the cities of Mecca and Medina.

Also worth checking out is the Living with Wood Gallery, which displays the lifestyles of Islamic people around the world. This includes an exhibition of the finery and ornaments of a Malay bride!

Which exhibitions are the most popular?

“After monitoring our visitors, we find a lot of the younger generation, and the male visitors, tend to visit our Arms and Armour gallery. While the female visitors like to see the Textiles and Jewellery!” Dr Heba said with a laugh.

One of the exhibits on display in the Jewelery Gallery.
One of the exhibits on display in the Jewellery Gallery.

The museum also features a conservation centre, a restaurant, gift shop, two terraces, a fountain garden, an auditorium, a children’s library and a scholar’s library.

According to Dr Heba, the origins of most Islamic art lay in practical, rather than mere aesthetic purposes.

“If you look around, most of the objects you see on display are utility objects. If there are textiles, they are used for costumes or bedding. If there are ceramics, there are for everyday use. If they are books, they are used to spread the word of Islam,” she said.

“It’s not like in Europe where there are portraits, or relics. They weren't made to dazzle, or to be kept, or hung. They are pieces you actually use.”

Asked how she felt about their recent accolades, Dr Heba said the museum staff was very proud, as it was a sign all the hard work of managing the museum had paid off.

“Usually in museums, you play in two different fields. One is the curatorial field, where we try to display as much knowledge about our subjects as possible. The other is the appreciation of the public, which we don’t always know. So this is a good indicator of our progress there,” Dr Heba said.

The Standard Chartered Ottoman room features the actual interior of a 19th century Ottoman Syrian house.
The Standard Chartered Ottoman room features the actual interior of a 19th century Ottoman Syrian house.

Indeed, most visitors to the museum had nothing but praise for the collections on display.

“I had a free day in KL, and thought I’d visit the place,” said tourist David Jeffery, 64, from Britain. “And I thought it was brilliant! I was impressed with the wide range of items in the collection, which were very well presented. The quality of the explanatory material was also excellent.”

“The best museum in Kuala Lumpur – in my personal opinion,” Joe S. from Orlando, Florida, commented on the museum’s TripAdvisor page.

According to Dr Heba, the museum usually sees about 10,000 visitors a month, with the figure increasing when there are interesting exhibitions taking place.

Asked about the future of the museum, Dr Heba said the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia would keep adding to its collection every once in a while. The place also hosted new temporary exhibitions periodically, ensuring there is something different to see with each visit.

The museum is currently hosting an exhibition entitled “Al-Qur’an: The Sacred Art Of Revelation (Volume II)”, which runs until Dec 31.

Dr Heba added that the existence of museums like this is important to ensure history is preserved. The conservation of these artefacts is crucial so modern society is able to appreciate the legacy of the great Islamic civilisations, whose people were pioneers of art, science and culture.

She said: “Every artefact tells a story. They tell us about how ancient people lived, and thought. And there are actually a lot of similarities between them and us today.”

> The Islamic Arts Museum is located on Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur. It is open every day, including public holidays, from 10am to 6pm. Tickets are RM14 for adults and RM7 for visitors below 18 years old, students of higher learning institutions and senior citizens (Malaysian). Tickets are priced at RM12 & RM6 respectively when the Special Galleries are closed. Children below six enter for free.

   

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