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Islamic Heritage at the History of Science Museum, Dr Federica Gigante

Dr Federica Gigante is the Curator of the Collection from the Islamic World at the History of Science Museum. Her research examines the transmission of knowledge and the movement of things, people, and ideas between the Islamic world and Italy in the Early Modern period. She is particularly interested in how artefacts, manuscripts, scientific instruments, and natural specimens travelled from the Islamic world to Italy to enter collections as well as scientific laboratories and in how knowledge and information was gathered in Islamic territory, travelled across the Mediterranean, and was received in Italy.

We talk to Dr Federica Gigante about her experiences as a curator, how artefacts, scientific instruments, and natural specimens travelled from the Islamic world to Europe and most interesting Islamic heritage objects in the collection at History of Science Museum.

When did you develop an interest in Islamic art and how did you become an expert in this area?

I grew interested in the arts of the Islamic world through one of its languages, Arabic. I had always been fascinated and attracted by what looked to me like an impenetrable language and soon after my Masters in art history at the Warburg Institute in London I started actively to study it. It hooked me, and took me into a different dimension. I wanted to know more, I wanted to learn more and this is what led me to study Islamic art, a natural result in a way, as I was training as an art historian at the same time. It was love at first sight. I did another postgraduate course in Islamic art at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London, then applied for a PhD in Islamic art (jointly at SOAS and the Warburg Institute). Several years later, I am the curator of a marvellous collection from the Islamic world.

Did you always want to be a curator?

No, I didn't always want to be a curator, largely because I did not know what being a curator entailed before starting to gain some experience in museums. Universities do not really prepare students for the real world. I have always been a very hands-on person – I initially wanted to be an archaeologist – and find the concept of studying objects from books most frustrating. Being surrounded by artefacts puts me in my element. Moreover, working in a university museum means I am as much of an academic as a curator, and this is a unique and very privileged position to be in. I can teach students one day and then work on a new exhibition idea on another; I can engage with visitors one day and then work on a book publication on another.

Why are you particularly interested in how artefacts, manuscripts, scientific instruments, and natural specimens travelled from the Islamic world to Europe, and Italy in particular?

This came very naturally to me, this topic unites my interest in the Islamic world, and my Italian origins. I particularly enjoy to challenge people’s assumptions as to what relates to their culture and I love to point out how indebted we, in Europe, sometimes are to the Islamic world. I curated an exhibition about coffee-drinking, for example, in which I pointed out that one of our most beloved every-day activities – sipping coffee on a sofa – is entirely an inheritance of Ottoman culture. Coffee entered Europe through the Ottoman world, as an Ottoman-style activity, and so did the sofas.

Have you curated any exhibitions specifically around the Islamic World?

I have curated a few exhibitions about the Islamic world but my last one was about metalwork, and I was fortunate enough our museum had loaned one of the most exceptional pieces of Islamic metalwork in the world, the so-called Courtauld bag. Holding it in my hands, as would have done a noble lady in Iran 700 years ago was priceless. The exhibition illustrated how shapes and decorative motives travelled from China all the way to Europe and were adopted, reused and adapted by the different peoples who encountered them. For example, a lotus flower made it into Islamic art in the eastern borders of the Islamic world, then travelled westwards with the Mongols, through Iran, reached Egypt and can be found on some pieces of Italian metalwork in imitation of their Islamic equivalents.

What are some of the most interesting Islamic heritage objects in the collection at History of Science Museum?

The History of Science Museum holds the world’s finest collection of astronomical instruments from the Islamic world so I am spoiled for choice. The first that comes to mind is our spherical astrolabe, the only entire surviving specimen in the world. Astrolabes – flat metal disks with a rotating rotatable part representing a star map – were used to calculate the time of day and endless other things, since antiquity. We know only from the written sources and from this single specimen that some of the early ones were in fact not flat but spherical.

Astrolabe with geared calendar

Muhammad Ibn Abi Bakr Isfahan, 618 AH, 1221/2 CE Inv. 48213


Another most interesting item is our geared astrolabe made in Isfahan in 1221/2. This instrument features a normal astrolabe with its rotating star map on one side, and, on the other, a complex system of hidden gears moving an image of the moon and a representation of the sun and the moon rotating around the earth. Such an object did not only leave a viewer open-mouthed but could also very accurately predict solar or lunar eclipses. Could you imagine the immense power the owner of such objects would have had with such knowledge of future celestial events?