THOSE of us whose memories are up to recalling the “Look East” policy of the 1980s will feel a tingle of retro pleasure when they see the exhibition plans of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. In fact, Dr Mahathir himself revisited the concept last year. It’s a relief for the Brexit-bound UK to find that he is not revisiting the “Buy British Last” policy, of the same vintage.
These bold moves were originally about economics, with a little bit of culture thrown in. Almost 40 years later, there is an entirely culture-based initiative in the pipeline as the IAMM and the Tokyo National Museum team up for a landmark exhibition. It doesn’t open until 2021, but any deal with a Japanese signatory is worth a lot more than those flamboyantly signed pieces of paper that are despatched with depressing regularity from the White House.
Japan is a serious place to do cultural business. Before China became what it is now, Japanese exhibitions pulled in the biggest crowds around the world. They still have four in the top 20 of last year’s most visited shows. One of these is in the top 10. By a stroke of good fortune, this happened to be at the Tokyo National Museum. Poor old Britain really is being bought last, with not a single exhibition in the top 20. China is the winner for 2018 with five in the top 20.
Any agreement with the Tokyo National Museum is exciting news indeed. Even more so when it’s Islamic art that is going to be put in the spotlight. The title of the exhibition is “14 Dynasties: Art and Culture of the Islamic World”, which promises the most impressive overview of the subject that most audiences anywhere would have seen.
Japan does have a longer history of interest in the subject than might be expected. Until the 20th century, it was art collectors historians to the west and east of the Islamic world who were most immersed in the subject, with Japan being especially fascinated by what travelled to their end of the rather ambiguous route known as the Silk Road.
The harvest of Islamic wares in Japan is meagre compared with what the IAMM is bringing over. Interest, of course, is high. The profile of Islam around the world has risen hugely over recent decades, while Japan has had little hands-on experience of this phenomenon. It remains one of the most homogenous nations in the world, with a very small number of home-grown Muslims.
Curiosity is rampant, though. It’s the opposite of the UK, which now has a large and prominent Muslim population and a huge stash of Islamic art, much of it looted in the days when Britain went out into the world with more than trade missions.
It was in the UK that the IAMM still managed to pull off one of Malaysia’s greatest cultural coups by creating a new gallery of Islamic art at the British Museum last year. This year was the first joint exhibition between the British Museum and the same Malaysian institution.
Whether dealing with Tokyo or London, the considerations are many. Any sort of international exhibition collaboration is such a massive undertaking, so it’s no surprise that other Malaysian museums have avoided this route.
Every aspect of a travelling exhibition is expensive. Starting with the recces that have to be done at the beginning, and ending with the dismantling and return of artefacts, it is years of investment.
Along the way there is the time and money spent on dealing with government agencies, insurance companies (or government indemnities), packers, freight forwarders, conservators, photographers, publishers and the staff of both museums, although it has to be said that museum personnel are rarely on the lookout for business-class comforts.
These days it’s keeping the artefacts in good condition that costs more than the staff. Once upon a time, a stone sculpture could be lashed to the deck of a boat and everyone would hope for the best. Nowadays, it’s all about climate control and vehicular air suspension.
Time is an equally important consideration when every detail of a collaborative exhibition has to be agreed by both sides; and there are so many decisions to be made. Just getting a title right can be a conundrum.
Focus groups will no doubt be hired to ensure an auspicious conclusion to the use of the number 14 in Japanese. I remember a long and animated discussion with a museum in Singapore, 12 years ago, which didn’t like the sound of “Neither East nor West” because in Chinese it sounded like “neither here nor there”, which was exactly the intention.
The benefit of all this exchange is not just artistic. Perceptions of an entire nation and its culture can be enhanced. Very rarely is anything diminished by the experience. Just as “panda diplomacy” thawed the frostiness between the USA and China, a successful art exhibition can do the same as black-and-white bears.
East Coast Americans will no longer believe that Korean culture begins and ends with K-Pop after the sculptor Do Ho Suh became the subject of the world’s third most popular exhibition last year.
The price of putting Islamic art on the platform it deserves in the world’s third largest economy – Japan – will no doubt be high. We should be grateful that Malaysia has an institution prepared to do this.
It’s hard to think of anyone else who has done the same, apart perhaps from the Kuwaiti royal family, which put its rather restricted version (Mughal jewellery) on the road almost 20 years ago. By coincidence, this touring exhibition started at the British Museum and concluded at the IAMM.
If past performance from the IAMM is anything to go by, museum director Syed Mohamad Albukhary is right to hope that the exhibition travelling to Japan, “…will open a window into the world of Islam”. Much better than having a brick thrown through it!