Co-Curating Hidden Stories of the Silk Roads, Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip & Dr. Suzanne Conklin Akbari

Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads is a groundbreaking exhibition at Aga Khan Museum which opened on October 9, 2021 and closes on February 27, 2022. The exhibition is available to view and experience online.


As you explore Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads, you encounter 1000 years of history, including books, scrolls, manuscript paintings, and textiles that shaped — not just documented — life along one of history’s most important trade networks and beyond.


Though Hidden Stories examines a vast network of trade routes spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa, each of its historical artifacts comes from an Ontario-based collection. Featured in the exhibition are rarely displayed works from the Aga Khan Museum’s permanent Collection along with objects generously loaned by the Royal Ontario Museum, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Western University, and the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Collection.


Dala’il al-Khayrat Prayer book, probably Kashmir, 13.6 x 8.5 x 2 cm, dated A.H. Muharram 1233/AD November 1818, lacquer binding; opaque watercolour, ink, and gold on paper, © The Aga Khan Museum

 

Considered on their own, each of these works sheds light onto a time and place in history. From a 1,000-year-old prayer sheet from northwestern China to a five-metre-long Iranian scroll of the Qur’an, or a richly coloured Jewish marriage contract from 19th-century Greece, each of these artistic marvels tells a story about the community where it originated as well as their links with other cultures. Assembled together, they tell vivid, soaring stories about the intercultural exchange of technology, art, and ideas, the ingenuity of human beings, and a millennia-old worldwide love affair with books that continues today.


Quran 18thc, Harar Ethiopia Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

 

We talk to Co-curatorsDr. Filiz Çakır Phillip, Aga Khan Museum, and Dr. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, N.J.) about the concept and intention behind the exhibition, the diverse cultures along the silk route, digital curating and thoughts on the future of exhibiting Islamic art, culture and heritage.

Filiz Çakır Phillip (FCP), Aga Khan Museum - replies in green Suzanne Conklin Akbari (SCA), Institute for Advanced Study- replies in blue How did the concept behind Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads exhibition develop?

FCP: The Aga Khan Museum has been working in partnership with the Book and Silk Roads (BSR) research group of the University of Toronto since 2017. With international art shipping restrictions, due to Covid-19, we decided to conceptualize an exhibition to share the research results of BSR’s international cutting-edge scholarship, while at the same time emphasizing the treasures of Ontario.


Akber Dewji

 

SCA: Our ‘Old Books, New Science’ research group based at the University of Toronto had long been hoping that we might find a way to connect our Mellon-funded ‘Book and the Silk Roads’ research project with our friends at the Aga Khan Museum, and an opportunity arose — due to the pandemic — to put together an exhibition that would be at once local and global: global in the scope of the objects assembled there, but local in being drawn from collections in southern Ontario. We tell the story of the interconnected premodern past, using the history of the book as our pathway, revealing the ‘hidden stories’ that each object tells.


What were the reasons behind co-curating the exhibition?

FCP: Co-curation is a wonderful way of representing our partnership with UofT’s BSR research group.


SCA: Two main reasons: first, we were eager to partner with the Aga Khan Museum as part of a larger effort to connect our research group at the University of Toronto with cultural heritage institutions in the region; second, we saw this as a wonderful opportunity to translate the specialized work on book history that is carried out by university researchers, curators, scientists and engineers into a material, vivid, personal form that would speak to a broader public.

Why did you want to tell the historical story of the Silk Route?

FCP: The collaboration between BSR and the Museum pivoted around the production of books and manuscripts along the Silk Roads, including the used materials and technologies. Creating awareness around this research in the context of globalism and intercultural crossroads for the general public through an exhibition was evident.


SCA: We wanted to not only tell the story of the historical “Silk Roads” — routes of trade and exchange that linked East Asia and Europe for hundreds of years — but also evoke the metaphorical ‘silk roads,’ that is, the wider currents that cross both land and sea to connect people, objects, craft practices, and ideas.


Qur'an Anthology, China, 27.5 x 20 cm, second half of the 18th century, ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper, AKM824, © The Aga Khan Museum

 

As part of the exhibition visitors encounter books, scrolls, manuscript paintings, and textiles that shaped life along the Silk Roads. How did you select the artifacts on display?

FCP: Although the focus of the exhibition is on manuscripts and the tradition of book production along the Silk Roads, we have included diverse materials to explore interlinked relationships through materiality, as well as the strong relationship between written and oral traditions. Considering the romanticized name “Silk Roads”, we felt drawn to include silk robes to emphasize the importance of the production of silk throughout the vast geographical coverage of these roads, and silk’s connections to manuscript production. Sometimes the fabrics were used as book bindings, or the manuscripts were wrapped in textile for protection. The portability of both textiles and manuscripts was another aspect we included in our concept. Generally, you can read stories in the books, but sometimes they can be embroidered on textiles as well. As an example, you can see four different stories embroidered on a 20th century Central Asian robe from the Aga Khan Museum Collection.

Akber Dewji

 

SCA: We began by identifying some key items that we knew we would like to include, focusing particularly on manuscript books but also adding objects that illuminate the craft practices of the same time and place — textiles, carpets, bookstands, jewel-like amulets that enclose a tiny book or written page. As our selection for the Hidden Stories exhibition continued to grow, we began to organize the objects within different thematic strands — for example, ‘the book and the body,’ or ‘intercultural crossroads’ — and to explore juxtapositions of paired items from different traditions. In this way, we could encourage the objects to (as it were) speak for themselves. Once we began the actual physical installation of the exhibition, we began to joke that we could hear the books ‘whispering’ to one another when the lights were down!


What are some of the exhibition highlights?

FCP: A Kashmiri prayer book (the opening artwork of the exhibition)

An Ethiopian amulet scroll

A Central Asian robe with four stories

A Quran on Cloth (full image; detail)

An Indian Map of a pilgrimage route on cloth

A Kashmiri book (the closing artwork of the exhibition)


Gwalior Quran and HarariQuran

 

SCA: I have so many favorites that it’s impossible to say! The list above is wonderful; I would perhaps add the pairing of the Toledo Bible manuscript in Hebrew with the Qur’an anthology from China, written in Arabic in a style that mixes Islamic and East Asian calligraphic traditions. In these paired objects, we see the mingling of word and image in two different traditions — one from Iberia, one from East Asia, far west and far east — in a kind of fusion. We can read the words, but we are also awed by their abstract forms.

Toledo bible on left. Chinese Quran anthology on right

 

How does the exhibition connect links between diverse cultures along the silk route?

FCP:Through the production of manuscripts, shared ideas, stories and technologies.


SCA: The connections are made in multiple ways, mainly through juxtapositions and clusters. Juxtapositions include the Toledo Bible and Qur’an anthology I mentioned earlier, as well as a marvelous pairing of two objects that are about 1000 years old, appearing near the beginning of the exhibition: that is, pages from the Mishnah (or oral Torah), preserved in the Cairo Geniza, and a prayer sheet depicting Avalokiteśvara, a form of the Buddha, preserved in the ‘library cave’ of Dunhuang. This pair of objects — one from the Mediterranean region, the other from Central Asia; one hand-written, the other printed — gives a sense of the range of the exhibition as a whole. Clusters also illustrate the connections of diverse cultures, drawing on the different forms of the book — scroll, codex, or palm-leaf manuscript — to illustrate the range of craft practices and materials used along the Silk Roads.

Qur’an Scroll, Copied by Zayn al-‘Abidin Isfahani, 1847, Iran, 575 x 12.5 cm, Opaque watercolour, gold, and ink on paper, AKM492, © The Aga Khan Museum

 

Can you tell us more about the craftspeople behind the making of books along the Silk Roads. Are the tools and techniques they used still active today?

FCP:The Nepalese pothi style manuscript is a good example, as this style traditionally was produced on palm leaves. After the invention of paper, however, the leaves were replaced with paper, but this was kept in the shape of long and narrow leaves. Another example is the scribes’ instruments from 18th to 19th Turkey, underlining the long-lasting tradition of scribes and the importance of their utensils.


SCA: The desire to record texts and share stories is ancient and seen across cultures. It is part of the human experience and one that binds all the objects in the exhibition together. The term manuscript comes from the Latin manu-hand and script-written - written by hand. Whether hand-written text is held within a pothi-style manuscript from Nepal or Myanmar, an Ethiopian or Tibetan scroll, or a codex book from India or Europe - the basic tools of writing by hand are largely the same as they were 2,000 years ago. We still write today when we fill out a grocery list, write a letter, or sign a document! The exhibition does a wonderful job of illuminating the work of Silk Roads craftspeople, showing scribal implements - and scribes, bookbinders, and papermakers at work. The books and scrolls themselves are also testament to the skill of traditional manuscript painters, scribes, bookbinders, paper and parchment-makers, whose craft practices are still alive today. The Islamic bookbindings case, in particular, highlights the artistry of Muslim craftspeople, and describes the influences on - and impact of - Islamic book decoration across a period of over 1,000 years.




Are aspects of contemporary art and culture from the Silk Roads included?

FCP:In the exhibition we focus on 1000 years of history of manuscripts along the Silk Roads, spanning from the 10th to the 20th century.

SCA: The objects on display span a thousand-year period, including the earlier part of the twentieth century. We had hoped to include workshops on practical bookmaking, but the pandemic limited the amount of in-person, hands-on activities we could incorporate into the exhibition.


Gold Amulet, Iran, 19th century, 8.5 cm, gold, chased and hammered, AKM624.2, © The Aga Khan Museum

 

The exhibition is both global — examining a vast network of trade routes spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa — and local, bringing together historical artifacts from collections across Ontario, Canada. As part of this does the exhibition explore Islamic art, heritage and culture through a local and global lens?

FCP:Yes, we have loans from Royal Ontario Museum, the Thomas Fisher Rare Library of University of Toronto, the Marilyn and Marshall Wolf Collection, Toronto, and Western University, London, Ontario in addition to a selection from the Aga Khan Museum Collection. Overall, we have 110 artworks from Ontarian collections representing the richness of intercultural connections along the Silk Roads.

SCA: When curators aim to develop an exhibition that will offer a ‘global’ perspective, they have to decide what vantage point they will invite their visitors to inhabit. In other words, every exhibition is situated in a different way: the wonderful Caravans of Gold exhibition, for example, had a different vantage point in each of its three venues — Northwestern’s Block Museum; the Aga Khan Museum; and the National Museum of African Art — the first emphasizing the fragment, from an archeological approach; the second drawing out the Islamicate aspects of the region; and the third placing the materials in the larger framework of African history. For Hidden Stories, we recognized that we had a unique opportunity to situate the history of the book not in a Eurocentric vision — too common, in the field of codiocology as practiced in North America, at least — but in the history of the Islamic book. Our mini-exhibit within the larger exhibition featuring luxurious stamped and adorned book covers, therefore, foregrounds the Islamic book as the basis from which we approach book history more generally.


Qur’an On Cloth, India, 31 July 1718 CE /3 Ramadan 1130 AH to 11 July 1720 CE / 5 Ramadan 1132 AH, Cloth, hand-written, ink, paint and gold leaf, © The Aga Khan Museum

 

The exhibition is also enhanced with technology and digital interventions. Can you share more about the digital experiences you curated?

FCP: Including the Micro CT lab into the exhibition was crucial regarding the cutting-edge research carried out by BSR, as it offers an innovative and non-invasive access to the manuscripts. From the point of museology and collection care it is very important to include 21st century technologies to study the collections and to create accessibility for the general public and academia. Accessibility is important. Due to Covid-19 restrictions we could not include hands-on activities in the exhibition interpretive plan, but through QR codes we are able to offer additional information about the artworks.

SCA: The Hidden Stories exhibition includes a ‘microCT lab’ in one corner, where two videos run continuously, offering an electronic peek into the concealed interior of the book and telling (in brief) the story of our various research undertakings in the ‘Book and the Silk Roads’ project. One video features interviews with project leader Alexandra Gillespie along with exhibition co-curator Filiz Çakır Phillip, telling the story of how microCT imaging reveals the ‘hidden stories’ of the book. The other video dives deeper, showing regular video images of four selected objects in the show, each one followed by a microCT scan of the same object. It’s our hope that these videos incorporated into the in-person exhibition will draw visitors to our online digital companion, where many other videos and additional resources are embedded.


Akber Dewji

 

The Hidden Stories digital companion site (http://hiddenstories.library.utoronto.ca/) brings to life the exhibition online including virtual tours, podcasts, and videos, with additional educational resources for educators. What are the benefits of using digital platforms as part of exhibition making?

FCP:It was important from the beginning of our collaboration with BSR to include a complimentary digital exhibition alongside the museum exhibition. Thanks to the support of the University of Toronto, the digital exhibition will remain online for 3 years to serve and share research updates and it is possible to visit the exhibition virtually through the Matterport tour (https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=K4vECqyTrPD).

SCA: We knew that the in-person exhibition would have a limited lifetime — early October through the end of February, or only about five months — so we planned from the beginning to have a digital companion that would remain online for at least three years. Beyond this, we wanted a digital companion that would grow over time, with more resources being added to it gradually, including text, image, video, and audio. Our closing symposium will be a key opportunity to develop additional content for the online companion.


Qur’an Manuscript, Copied by Mahmud Sha‘ban, India, Gwalior, 11 July 1399 CE / 7 Dhu’l-Qa‘da 801 AH, Ink, gold, and opaque watercolour on paper, © The Aga Khan Museum

 

What are your thoughts on the representation and inclusion of Islamic art and heritage in western Museums and galleries?

FCP: 21st century museology requires a different approach; more diversity, inclusivity and equality in the name of a global approach. Collections are studied, researched and visited more frequently with the lens of globalism. We have chosen a non-colonial and non-western approach to respectfully represent all cultures along the Silk Roads.


SCA: In my opinion, it’s of fundamental importance to include Islamic art and heritage in western museums and galleries — not only to acknowledge the more diverse publics that visit cultural heritage sites today, but also to recognize the interconnected nature of the premodern world. We see an effort of this sort in the recent exhibition at the Cloisters wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ‘Spain, 1000–1200: Art at the Frontiers of Faith,’ where objects produced and used by both Jews and Muslims are included. Yet it may not be enough to simply ‘add on’ Islamic art to the conventional view of the Latin Christian Middle Ages; instead, I would suggest, we need to re-center our histories of the period. This is work that has long been taking place in the research environment, but it’s not as easy to translate this effort into the sometimes conservative space of the museum.


Akber Dewji

 

Should museums be more transparent with regards to the provenance of artefacts and objects?

SCA: Perhaps the most important thing is to be frank and open about provenance, to openly share what is known — and what is not known — about the origins of each object and the journey that it made on its way to the museum. One thing I was surprised by, in working on the Hidden Stories exhibition, was how much I found myself studying and thinking about nineteenth-century history: that is, the colonial past that is so fundamental to the formation of today’s museums. A great deal of work remains to be done there, both in terms of provenance research and in telling the stories of these objects in a way that frankly acknowledges their sometimes difficult paths to the museum.

Tiraz Textile Fragments, Egypt, 10th century, Linen with tapestry-woven inscription in silk, 978.76.984 A-B, © Royal Ontario Museum

 

What does the future of Islamic art look like to you and what role can museums play in its development?

SCA: Being new to the world of museum studies, this is a difficult question for me! I feel that some of the most exciting ways Islamic art is presented, both in the museums and in digital environments, is as a spur to continued creativity. Here, I am reminded of the beautiful webcomic series by writer and artist Reimena Yee, titled ‘Alexander, the Servant, and the Water of Life: The 21st-century Alexander Romance.’ Yee adapts images from various medieval manuscripts — for example, an image of the dangerous and unclean tribes of Gog and Magog, shut up behind gates of iron and bitumen in the remotest north, is adapted from a sixteenth-century manuscript of the Shahnameh (BL IO Islamic 3540, f.390r) currently held in the British Library. Yee’s work attests to the ongoing vitality not only of the Alexander tradition in general, but of the Islamic manuscript tradition in particular. These images continue to inspire artists to create, and to provoke us to both awe and wonder.


Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip is a Curator at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. She is a scholar and specialist in Islamic Art with extensive curatorial and research experience. She was instrumental in the opening of the Aga Khan Museum in 2014, which she joined from a position as curator at the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin. She has served as senior fellow at Excellence Cluster TOPOI and Research Fellow at both the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz — Max-Planck-Institut and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Dr. Çakır Phillip is serving as board member of the Association of Art Museum Curators.

Suzanne Conklin Akbari is professor of medieval studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Her books are on optics and allegory (Seeing Through the Veil) and European views of Islam and the Orient (Idols in the East), and she’s also edited volumes on travel literature, Mediterranean Studies, and somatic histories, plus the Open Access collections How We Write and How We Read. Her most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Chaucer (2020), co-edited with James Simpson. Akbari is involved with two global medieval studies projects, “The Book and the Silk Roads” and “Practices of Commentary." She is especially interested in how living and working on Lenapehoking inflects our academic research and the communities we form. Her work in this area includes “The Gift of Shame,” published in postmedieval 11.2 (2020), and a public-facing piece on Indigenous writers and the genre of the essay). A co-editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, Akbari co-hosts a literature podcast called The Spouter-Inn.


For more information check out https://agakhanmuseum.org/exhibitions/hidden-stories


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