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?
Do you include Muslim voices in the storytelling of objects and exhibition making at the History of Science Museum?
We do indeed include Muslim voices in our Museum. We have been running for several years an award-winning project called Multaka (ملتقى) “meeting point” in Arabic, whose goal is to involve people from source communities, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the activities of the Museum, from guided tours to family events and co-curations. In the last exhibition I curated, four volunteers joined us sharing their experiences of similar objects to those exhibited and also contributed some of their own personal objects to the online exhibition.
How do you come up with ideas for exhibitions?
There is always a list of exhibition topics I would like to cover that piles up in my head in search for the appropriate moment. When the opportunity to have an exhibition comes up I might go through those first! However, sometimes there are clear constraints dictated by external circumstances. For example, another show happening at the same time in a different venue with which we would like to be paired. Working in Oxford gives many opportunities to work collaboratively with other departments and museums, as well as other universities.
What’s your favourite object in the collection? If you could add any object to your collection, what would it be?
My favourite object in the collection is the astrolabe of Shah Abbas II. It is simply one of the most splendid combinations of craftsmanship and scientific accuracy, where beauty meets science.
What are you most proud of achieving in your career to date?
I am a curator within an extraordinary museum, working with one of the world’s most exciting collections and one that is yet to be fully explored, this is my biggest achievement so far. When I decided to study art history my family believed I would end up working in a call center (with all respect to those working in a call center) so difficult is it to find a job within the sector. I proved them wrong, and no matter how many sacrifices it cost me, it was well worth it.
Should museums be more transparent with regards to the provenance of artefacts and objects?
Yes, as much as ever possible. We are the custodians of such objects, it is our duty to be as clear as possible as to their provenance and means of procurement. Unfortunately, often these collections were assembled at a time when people were less concerned with such issues. Finding answers, therefore, requires thorough historical research and the willingness to finance it. At present, I have applied for research funding to research the provenance of our founding collection from the Islamic world and advance the process of decolonisation within our Museum. I hope we will soon be able to undertake this essential work and share the results with our public and source communities.
Are museums important?
Yep, museums aren’t simply important, to me they are essential. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea but preserving our historical memory is a collective duty and that’s what museums can help us achieve. Seeing artefacts in the flesh creates a connection with our past and our ancestors, it places us in a broader context that can help us make sense of our own lives. During the Covid pandemic it has been fun to “visit” an exhibition in the United States one day and in Qatar the following day, this has certainly changed the way we consume such events. At the same time, however, it has highlighted (at least to me) what a different experience it is to watch objects through a screen and in person and, as a consequence, the importance of museums as places where one can encounter such objects.
What do you think the role the digital platforms can play in opening up collections to the world?
I think this will be the future. As part of my own research I rediscovered and reconstructed a collection of Islamic art that had been assembled in Italy in the 17th century. Many objects were thought to be lost as they had been dispersed across several museums and never digitalised or published. It took me months of field research in order to achieve my goal. If all collections had been digitalised this would have been a much easier and quicker task. The same therefore applies to the hundreds of hidden collections, larger or smaller, all over the world that might only start to receive attention and be studied once they are digitalised and made available to the world.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you and what role can museums play in its development?
Museums are one of the few places in the non-Islamic world where people can encounter Islamic art and culture, and – what is even more powerful – they can encounter it without ever having planned to do so. Someone going to visit an Islamic art exhibition or display is already interested in it. Someone walking into a museum and chancing upon some objects of Islamic art will be surprised, amazed, and will learn something new. This will hopefully chance some of his or her prejudices. At the History of Science Museum in Oxford, for example, you wouldn’t exactly expect to find such a fine collection of Islamic astronomical instruments, so a visitor will end up having learned about the amazing contribution of the Islamic world to science without having wanted to do so. This is extremely powerful and this is what I hope the future of Islamic art and culture will be.
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