Preserving the Past for the Future, Dr. Sara Ann Knutson

Dr. Sara Ann Knutson is Assistant Professor of Teaching and a historian and archaeologist of premodern Afro-Eurasia, including the Islamic World and Scandinavia.

She earned her PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, MA in Scandinavian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, MPhil in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge, and BA in History from the University of Michigan. Her research and teaching have examined topics of diasporas, global networks, race and ethnicity, Digital Humanities, materiality, museums and archives, and Islamicate cultural heritage.


We talk to Dr. Sara Ann about her passion for the history of the Islamic World, access and inclusion of Islamic history in mainstream education and how understanding the past impact the development of the future of Islamic art.

You are Assistant Professor of Teaching and a historian and archaeologist of premodern Afro-Eurasia, including the Islamic World, what led you to pursue a career in these areas?


I am the first person in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree so becoming an academic was certainly never an intuitive career path. Nevertheless, my family really values education, especially educating women, so I grew up with a strong desire to learn about the world around me from history books, traveling, languages, and interacting with people.


My love for the history of the Islamic World, in a roundabout way, came from my family history. I grew up in Michigan and part of my family’s history traces back to a small farm in northern Norway. I wish I knew what motivated my great-grandfather to leave his life in that village for an entirely new life in the Midwest. I don’t think I will ever know the answer to that question but studying history helps me to recover a past that I only have fragments of. In my research, I encountered an oral history from a Syrian immigrant, who lived at the same time in Michigan as my great-grandfather. He recalled that he particularly liked selling goods to the Scandinavian farmers because they, too, were non-native English speakers and immigrants. I am therefore fascinated by questions of diasporas, identities, and migrations—why do people move? And what knowledges and practices are exchanged when different communities encounter each other?


But twentieth-century immigration to the United States is not the only time people from Scandinavia and the Islamic World have encountered each other. I ask those same questions about exchanges and movements in thinking about the premodern past, including during the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate, which was a very important intellectual and economic center in Afro-Eurasia. And while premodern Scandinavians left few written records of their exchanges with individuals from the Islamic World, Arab writers like Ahmad ibn Fadlān produced fascinating anthropological accounts about Northern Eurasians. I became frustrated by how many Euro-Western scholars nonetheless study these trans-Eurasian interactions only from the Scandinavian perspective, not the Islamic one and without learning Arabic. It is very important to me, as an anthropologist, to try to understand the Islamic World on its own terms, not from foreigners’ perspectives. Part of this practice includes, not least, learning additional languages. I want to teach future generations of historians and archaeologists that we must bear witness to the multi-perspectives that the past has to offer.


What are your areas of research?


Very broadly, I study ancient and premodern Afro-Eurasia and how the movements, exchanges, and interactions between communities in the past find expression in cultural heritage in our present day. I am interested in the art and cultural objects of the Islamic World and how these materials circulated and inspired other forms of art and heritage. For example, I studied ‘Abbāsid coinage as part of my doctoral dissertation. Based on part of that research, I have a forthcoming publication that discusses the long-distance circulation of Islamic coins; the Arabic on these coins inspired communities outside the Islamic World to try to re-create Arabic writing on their own materials, such as on bronze vessels. I am also fascinated by questions of cultural heritage in Islamic art and archaeology. One of my current projects explores historical and contemporary Islamic jewelry, amulets, and clothing.


Islamic Coins

Pair of Shoes


Do you think there needs to be more access and inclusion of Islamic history in mainstream education as well as heritage, collecting and archival institutions? What are the benefits?


YES, absolutely! I cannot emphasize that point enough! This was one of the most important reasons why I realized why it is not good enough to only study the Islamic World from the perspective of Scandinavia, or medieval Europe. Unfortunately, Euro-Western scholars have a history of distorting the Islamic past, especially when Islamic history is also taught only in relation to European history. Islamic history is so much more than the historical developments that are relevant to Europe. It is important to de-center Europe in the teaching of Islamic history (or any other non-Euro-Western society for that matter) and instead teach students to understand the Islamic past on its own terms. Access and inclusion are very important issues in heritage, collections, and archival institutions. In my own research, I found that some individuals who culturally identify with the Islamic World are very passionate about their cultural heritage but have never, or only rarely, been able to access Islamic art and material culture because many of these materials are housed in Euro-Western museums and collections. Greater inclusion and access to this cultural heritage are therefore crucial for reaching people to whom the Islamic past deeply matters. This work also importantly destabilizes the obvious power imbalances in who has traditionally been allowed write narratives about Islamic history and the power imbalances in access to materials of cultural heritage value owing to colonialism. Finally, I think this work in inclusion and access can make an important impact in contradicting false assumptions and misrepresentations about the Islamic World.


You have been on many excavations, what is the most enjoyable part of being on an archaeological site?


I am actually one of a few (but growing number of) archaeologists who do not excavate! I am more interested in non-invasive methods in archaeology, which I think will be a significant part of future archaeological research. Many people, including scholars, often forget that excavation irrevocably disrupts the archaeological record. Non-invasive tools and technologies in archaeology can offer alternative and sometimes more ethical ways of studying the past. It is also the case that many materials uncovered during previous archaeological projects remain understudied in museums and archives. I mainly work with these kinds of materials.


This all said, the most enjoyable part for me about being at an archaeological- or heritage site is the opportunity to bear witness to people in the past who created that site as well as people in the present who also interact with the site. Seeing the site through the lens of the past as well as the present reminds me that no site is entirely “frozen in time” or static—each generation decides how to care for the site and which meanings to ascribe to it.


Temple of Heracles, Amman during Muharram


Your research and teaching has examined topics of diasporas, global networks and race and ethnicity. How can cultural heritage build an understanding between cultures?


This is a beautiful question. Like many scholars, I define cultural heritage as an inheritance of practices, identities, and values from the past. This inheritance can take the form of tangible materials or intangible practices that have been transmitted over time. When we think about cultural heritage in this way, as organic, living practices that adapt in each new context, this helps us to stop seeing “culture” as an unchanging label that is placed over people and instead as intentional, deliberate communities who share common practices. Ultimately, I think appreciating cultural heritage helps us to better honor the diversity of humanity as well as how connected we all are.

For anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Islamic Art and Architecture, what advice can you share?


My humble advice is to follow your curiosity and do not be afraid to reach out to people whose work you admire. This could be a scholar or a practicing artist who draws inspiration from the history of Islamic art and architecture. I have learned so much from contacting an expert and more often than not, they are very generous with their time and knowledge.



How can we develop a greater understanding of archaeology?

I think there are many paths to developing a greater understanding of the past through archaeology. In my career so far, I have become most interested in talking to people and understanding which aspects of the past are most meaningful to them. Only then can we mutually develop research goals and strategies that archaeology can help us address.


What is your favourite period of Islamic art history and why?


I would have to pick two favourite periods of Islamic art history. The first has to be the ‘Abbāsid period as my main period of study, as well as for all its architecture, beautiful ceramics, and Arabic calligraphy in manuscripts. The second would be contemporary Islamic art, for all the ways that our current generation of artists are redefining the possibilities for what Islamic art can be in the twenty-first century. Bayt al Fann has also played an important role in introducing me to some fantastic contemporary artists and it has been a joy to learn about them and their work!


Abbasid, Folio from a Qur'an, Smithsonian Asian Art


Amman street art


Which is your favourite museum collection, exhibition or gallery of Islamic art?


This is probably cheating, but I am going to loosely interpret “gallery of Islamic art” and choose the street art of Jabal al-Weibdeh in Amman. This neighborhood has such a fantastic, eclectic array of street murals that I find joy in walking around and finding art in the most unexpected places. This art changed my assumptions about what Islamic art can be, where it can be found, which audiences have access to art, and how art can be enjoyed even in daily, urban settings. I must also say that Jabal al-Weibdeh features some wonderful indoor art galleries, especially for people interested in contemporary Islamic art.


Persian Jewel Box


Persian Jewel Box


How can understanding the past impact the development of the future of Islamic art and culture?


For me personally, one of the most important aspects of Islamic art and culture is that so many artists and practitioners explore in their work notions of Islamic heritage, and what that means to them and their community. Communities around the world each respond in their own way to the inheritance of values and practices from the past, not least through art and culture. Understanding Islamic history helps us to appreciate how the past is never entirely in the past—Islamic history continues to live on in the present day and it informs how communities build relationships, identities, and values that people carry into the future. Honoring and better understanding the past therefore sheds light on the importance of supporting future projects in Islamic art and culture. In my own practice as a historian and archaeologist, I recognize that Islamic history and art are not yet as present in mainstream education and public discourse as they should be. Nevertheless, art is an important expression of community values that builds community, creates empathy, and dismantles barriers. The support of Islamic art and culture therefore can make a powerful impact in creating more space for Islamic history in mainstream education and institutions and ensuring greater preservation and access of Islamic art and culture to heritage communities, including the diaspora.


For more information check out https://www.saraannknutson.com/


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