STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For the first time in eight years, the Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are open. The newly renovated galleries span 15 rooms, containing 1,200 objects from a rotating collection of thousands. The objects range from bits of handwriting to a Moroccan courtyard with a fountain.
NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Some of the things in this overwhelming installation you might expect. Many others are surprising, at least to a layman. There is as much secular art here as religious. The written word, as you might expect, is central, and there are extraordinary examples of calligraphy in painting and pottery.
Navina Haidar is one of the curators of the Islamic department. Writing, she says...
NAVINA HAIDAR: It's sort of the quintessential and highest form of artistic expression in the Islamic world, and also the most binding thread - in one sense, artistically - between all the diverse places and cultures and types of media that you see.
ADLER: There's a page from what may be the world's largest Koran, as tall as an adult. But in a room that many people enter first, filled with masterpieces from the collection, there's a 10th-century bowl from Iran, white glaze with black letters so pure and simple and yet abstract, it could be a piece of modern art.
And here's a surprise, images are everywhere: animals, dragons, flowers, realistic paintings of people, a painting of a bat with one wing folded, even architectural images on a prayer rug.
Our notion of Islam as forbidding imagery is not quite correct, says Haidar. Yes, in the purely religious sphere, images are discouraged.
HAIDAR: But they appear widely outside that context, especially when it comes to the illustration of books and poetry and literature.
ADLER: The 15 rooms that comprise the renovated galleries, which now bear the unwieldy title "The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia," are arranged to highlight the diversity and interconnectedness of these different cultures, as well as their connection to cultures we might not think are connected: Roman, Chinese, European.
The galleries show 13 centuries of works from different cultures - Spain to Turkey, Iran to India.
HAIDAR: So you don't get the sense of a single monolith, but you get the sense of a very faceted world, with many, many dimensions to it.
ADLER: The confluence of these cultures is everywhere: for example, a little bowl from China, 12th or 13th century, with a fish at the base in a circular pattern. And next to it, a bowl from Iran with exactly the same pattern.
But the most startling thing about the galleries is their beauty. For example, in the carpet room, filled with Ottoman Empire masterpieces, every carpet is individually lit, but everything else remains dark.
HAIDAR: There's a sense of mystery, I guess I would say, in this room for the eye, because the eye can't quite tell where the light is coming from or what the logic of the light is. But it's there, and it adds to a kind of certain atmospheric effect, I think, in this room.
ADLER: There are so many carpets here. We are immediately in a situation where sound has been muffled. There are a sizable number of people here, and yet it doesn't sound the way the rest of the exhibit sounds.
HAIDAR: I think there's also something, the power of these objects - the colors and the patterns - and the fact that you are enveloped in this room in a world of stars, medallions and interlocking forms, all in these beautiful, warm colors. It takes you instantly into a kind of another sphere.
ADLER: There is something very meditative about this space. There's something compelling about the use of architecture here, as well. There are wooden, carved window screens that filter light into certain rooms and allow shadows to play on the floor. If the sun is not streaming in, you can look through the screen out into the Roman Court below, allowing another sense of interconnection.
Then there is the Moroccan Courtyard with a little fountain and places to sit. There were even rose petals in the water the day I visited. The columns are Spanish, from the 15th century, but the woodwork, the tiles and the plaster carvings are all made by current artisans from Fez, Morocco.
HAIDAR: The idea was to create this Islamic space to show the living traditions of the Islamic world, and also to create an area where you don't have to look at anything, you don't have to read a label. You can sit on the bench, relax, look at the fountain.
ADLER: And ruminate on what you've seen so far.
Now, given how politicized Islam has become in the United States since 911, how did the huge team that put this installation together over nearly a decade engage with that political reality?
Haider, who was raised in New Delhi by a Hindu mother and Muslim father, says at first, Met curators and planners lived only in the world of pure scholarship. But they also realized, after a while, that everyone would come to the museum with their own experiences of the world.
Haidar does hope people will be able to experience the beauty of each object for itself.
HAIDAR: And hopefully sense that each of these objects has the power to take them way, way beyond their present moment. And the totality of them can take them absolutely to another place.
ADLER: But she hopes that they will also understand something deeper about cultures, interconnection and complexity.
HAIDAR: The same person who wakes up in the morning, reads the paper, has a certain idea about his world, can come in here and be offered a wider and deeper perspective.
I think more than anything else, we have great faith in the collection itself. We believe in its power. And I personally feel that never has this collection had more power and meaning than now. And I have full confidence that anyone who comes with an open mind and an open heart will take a lot back home with them that they didn't have when they first arrived.
ADLER: But if there is one message, she says, it's that the heritage of the Islamic world is the heritage of everyone, whether you approach it from Spain or Iran or Turkey or from India. However you find your way in, she says, welcome to the beautiful world of these objects.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
INSKEEP: And you can see pictures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's renovated gallery of Islamic art. It's called "Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia." You can find it all at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.