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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995


Deidre E. Lawrence, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, USA


"The composing of books is more effective than building in recording the accomplishments of the passing ages and centuries. For there is no doubt that construction eventually perishes, and its traces disappear, while books handed from one generation to another, and from nation to nation, remain ever renewed. ... Were it not for the wisdom garnered in books most of the learning would have been lo st. The power of forgetfulness would have triumphed over the power of memory."Jahiz (.255/869) "Praise of Books" (1)

The above quotation reflects the passion for book production including manuscripts, miniatures, and calligraphies which comprises an integral part of Islamic art. This love for books is a commona lity we all share and should give us insight to the study of Islamic art. As noted in the title of this paper, the Islamic art research collections in North America are the primary focus of this disc ussion.
In response to public interest in the romance of the "Orient", exhibitions of Islamic art in the United States began as early as 1912. What has evolved since these early exhibits is a more realistic approach to the historical development of Islamic art through scholarly symposia, publications and exhibitions.

There have been several major exhibitions of Islamic art in the United States including "7000 Years of Iranian Art", "Art Treasures of Turkey", "Renaissance of Islam: art of the Mamluks", "Arts of th e Islamic Book: the collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan", "Timur and the princely vision: Persian art and culture in the fifteenth century", "Islamic Art and Patronage: treasures from Kuwait" and "The Age of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent". These exhibitions and their accompanying catalogs are of interest because they document the evolving perception of quality as well as bring to light obj ects hidden in private collections. Major collections of Islamic art are held in several North American museums including The Brooklyn Museum (TBM), Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum o f Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Libraries with a similar subject strength on Islamic art, such as at The Brooklyn Museum (TBM), can be found at most of these museums.

At TBM early interest in this area is evident in the accession records which record the first object arriving on Feb., 1, 1901 which was a Syrian perfume sprinkler dated from the 13th/14th centuries. Stewart Culin, founding curator of ethnology (1903 1929) was very interested in the art of Islam and the Near East. One of his major acquisitions was paintings from the manuscript "Hamza nama", othe rwise known as the "Qissa i Amir Hamza", painted approximately 1562 77 and produced by the atelier at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. The four paintings in the Museum collection rank as outsta nding examples of the Mughal school. (2)

In 1931, TBM mounted two exhibitions entitled "Exhibition of Persian Art and its Reaction in the Modern World" and "Designs by Students inspired by the Persian exhibition". This was followed by sever al exhibitions such "Curator's Choice: Islamic Art in Africa", "The Collector's Eye: the Ernest Erickson Collections at The Brooklyn Museum" as well as reinstallations of the Islamic art collection in the last three decades. Today, the collection of Islamic art represents the full wealth of Islamic artistic production, with objects dating from the earliest periods of Islam through the twentieth century, from Spain to India and executed in a variety of media. An extensive research collection of over 5,000 titles, periodicals and archival material has been developed to allow for the understa nding and interpretation of these objects to the public.

Since its establishment in 1823, The Brooklyn Museum Libraries have been collecting books on Islamic art from around the turn of the century and holds research material that predates the founding of the Library. The collecting circumstances and prices paid are of interest here: "Journal du voyage du chevalier Chardin en Perse & aux Indes Orientales par la Mer Noire & par la Colchide" (London, 16 86 ) volume 1 purchased in 1916 for $5.40; "The geographical works of Sadiq Isfahani translated ... from original Persian mss..." bound with "A critical essay on various manuscript works, Arabic and Persian" (London, 1832) acquired by Stewart Culin on one of his collecting trips in Europe, Prince Alexis Soltykoff's "Voyage en Perse" (Paris, 1851) which originally came from the library of John La Farge and was purchased at auction for thirty cents in 1911. Later donations included "Turkistan: notes of a journey in Russian Turkistan ..." by Eugene Schuyler (New York, 1876) and "La guirlande de l'Iran: poemes" by Firdousi, Nizami, Omar Kheyyam, Saadi, Hafiz; vingt cinq minatures persanes" (Paris, 1948).

The collection was further enhanced by the acquisition of the personal library of Charles Edwin Wilbour. Wilbour was a pioneer American Egyptologist (1833 1896) whose personal library had been built up from purchases and gifts from the Egyptologists of his day. Although Wilbour's main focus was on Egypt he did collect some Islamic subjects such as "Constantinople" by Theophile Gautier (Paris, 18 53) and "Precis de l'art arabe et materiaux pour servir a l'histoire, a la technique des arts de l'Orient musulman" by Jules Bourgoin (Paris, 1892).

While the Libraries' early collecting efforts brought in several important titles, the Islamic art research collection was substantially enhanced through the generosity of the Hagop Kevorkian Fund a nd the estate of Charles K. Wilkinson.

The Brooklyn Museum began a long term relationship with the Hagop Kevorkian Fund in the mid nineteen fifties when Hagop Kevorkian donated funds which allowed for the purchase of twelve Assyrian relie fs from Ashur Nasir pal II. The Fund has continued to underwrite curatorial positions devoted to the study of Islamic and Ancient Middle Eastern art and special publication and exhibition projects to make the collections more accessible to scholars, students, and general public alike. In 1970, several books from the library of the Hagop Kevorkian Fund was given to the Museum which included key p ublications as "Die Ausstellung von Meisterwerken muhammedanischer Kunst in Munich" by F. Sarre (Munich, 1912), "Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey ..." by F. R. Martin (Lond on, 1912) and "Persian Art: an illustrated souvenir of the exhibition at Burlington House" (London, 1931).

Since then the Fund has continued to support the acquisition of research material so that current books, reprints and periodicals can be acquired. Recent acquisitions have included important referenc e tools such as the "Dictionary of national biography of Iran, 1700 1960" by Mahdi Bamdad (Tehran, 1966), "Ahval Va Assar i Naqqashan ..." by Muhammad Ali Karimzadah Tabrizi (Author, 1985), a three v olume set on the lives and art of painters of Iran as well as reprints of newspapers in Persian such as "Ruznameh i Dowlat i 'Illiyeh i Iran & Ruznameh i Dowlati" (Tehran, 1993).

The second major enhancement to the Islamic art research collection came with the bequest of approximately 300 titles from the personal library of Charles K. Wilkinson, a distinguished scholar in th e field of Islamic art. He became a curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's newly established Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art in 1956 having already spent a number of years with the Metrop olitan's archaeological expeditions in Egypt and in Iran. In 1963, he retired from the Metropolitan and in 1969 he returned to museum work accepting the newly established position of Hagop Kevorkian Curator of Middle Eastern Art and Archaeology at TBM where he remained until 1974.

Wilkinson actively started to collect objects and books in the 1930's. The ancient near eastern collections of both the TBM and the Metropolitan grew enormously through his acquisitions as well as th rough the generosity of Wilkinson himself, a major donor. He also wrote extensively on Islamic and pre Islamic objects such as the pottery and wall decorations from Nishapur. Wilkinson died in 1986 a nd his personal library was bequeathed to TBM.

In a recent telephone conversation with Mrs. Irma Wilkinson, I learned that Charles Wilkinson was always buying books wherever he went especially at book shops in London. These shops very often provi ded a meeting place to talk with his fellow scholars and collectors. He also acquired many books from his colleagues, such as Walter Hauser, and his interest ran the gamut from unique manuscripts to popular literature.

Of special note are two leather bound manuscripts in TBM's Asian art collection which were donated by Wilkinson in 1975: "Manual on Writing Style" (1833 34) and "Handwriting Manual" (1857 58) both of which were exhibited in conjunction with a symposium on "The Art and Culture of Qajar Iran" held at TBM in 1987.

Titles in the Library from the Wilkinson bequest include James Morier's "A Journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople in the years 1808 and 1809..." (London, 1812) and "Advent ures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan" (Calcutta, 1906), "Travels in Luristan and Arabistan" by the Baron C.A. De Bode (London, 1845), "The Anvari Suhaili or the lights of Canopus, being the Persian version of the Fables of Pilpay" (Hertford, 1854), "Glimpses of life and manners in Persia with notes on Russia, Koords, Toorkomans, Nestorians, Khiva, and Persia by Lady Sheil" (London, 1856).

One interesting aspect of Wilkinson's book collection is that it very often contains annotations and bookplates which reveal the provenance of the book before it came to Wilkinson. For instance, "His tory of Bokhara" by A. Vambery (London, 1873) has an ownership signature from "Brigadier General Regis 1873" and has a bookplate indicating that it is was once in the Library of Henry P. Urmston. Wil kinson annotated the book with "see the scathing and full version of this in E. Schuyler's "Turkestan". "Persia and the Persians" by S.G.W. Benjamin (Boston, 1887) is enscribed by the author who was U.S. minister to Persia.

Wilkinson also collected several lithographed books in Persian such as "Khamseh" by Nizami Ganjavi (Teheran, 1883), "Farsnameh i Nasiri" by Hasan Husaini Fasai (Teheran, 1895) which is a history of t he central province of Persia known as Fars, "Asar i 'ajam i Shirazi" by Forsat i Husseini Shirazi (Teheran, 1896) which is an index to the cities and villages of Fars; "Kulliyat i Sa'di" (1899) and "Kulliyat" by M. Sa'di Shirazi (Bombay, 1917). Some of the rarest books from his estate are the "Divan of Anvari Suhaili" penned by Mulla 'Abbasy' Ali (Teheran, 1845) a book of prose with lacquered p ainted leather covers and "Kitab al Tafsir" (no publisher, 1636?) which is an interpretation of the prophet Muhammad hand calligraphed in arabic. Also included in Wilkinson's estate was manuscript ma terial such as his research notes, sketches and photographs in preparation for a publication on Persian Lamps and lanterns as well as handwritten annotations on pre publication typescripts.

Today, The Brooklyn Museum's Islamic art research collection comprises books, monographic series, auction catalogs, offprints, periodicals, reprints, archival material and microfilm predominantly pub lished in North America, England and the Middle East. Basic reference tools include the "Cambridge History of Islam" (Cambridge, 1977), "Encyclopedia of Islam" (Brill, 1960 ), "Index Islamicus" (Lond on, 1956 ) as well as atlases such as the "Atlas of the Islamic World since 1950" (New York, 1982). Periodicals held are primarily on the arts including "Arts of the Islamic World" but also more gene ral titles as "Studia Iranica".
One of the concerns of the Museum is making these materials as well as the object collection accessible to the public.

In addition to the availability of the Museum Libraries and Archives to the public, bibliographic records for the collection are entered in the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN). This in ternationally available database ensures knowledge of the existence of these publications and which library owns them (The Brooklyn Museum's location code is NYBA).

The Brooklyn Museum will present a major exhibition on the "Court Painting of the Qajars" in 1997. This will be the first exhibition on this theme and will explore its expression with objects create d from 1700 to 1925 A.D. representing more than 200 years of Persia's history. To complement this exhibit, the Library will display some key publications and produce a list on "Islamic Art: Highlight s from The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives collection".


  1. "Islamic Bindings & Bookmaking" by G. Bosch, J. Carswell, G. Petherbridge (Chicago, 1981), p. 6.

  2. The largest group of paintings from the manuscript are in the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst in Vienna and in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

My thanks to Dr. Layla Diba, Associate Curator of Islamic Art and Dr. Maryam Ekhtiar, Assistant Curator of Islamic Art, for their generosity and support in sharing information about the collections o utlined in this paper.