The flowering of art follows with certain inevitability the accumulation of wealth and affluence.
In our collective consciousness the Medici, the rulers of Florence in the 15th and 16th centuries, are synonymous with patrons of art;their wealth amassed from their merchant and banking activities.
The ruling families of the tiny Arab emirates in the Gulf having accumulated more than a trillion dollars as a result of oil prices aspire to become the contemporary Medici.
The latest manifestation of this quest is Qatar's Museum of Islamic Art, unveiled in November 2008.
The museum was designed by the distinguished, Chinese-born architect I.M.Pei whose works include such landmarks as the Louvre pyramid and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The simple, stone-faced structure occupies an artificial island facing the palm-fringed corniche of the Qatar's capital, Doha.
The book is organized in three unities namely The Architecture, The Collection and the Exhibition Design.
The emphasis of the book is correctly placed on the visual impact with spectacular photographs of the exterior of the museum, the surrounding landscape, the interior of the building, the collection and the 'theatrical', in the positive connotation of the word sense, exhibition design. The text is appropriately spare but very insightful for in a substantial part relates to interviews with the architect and thus we obtain a glimpse of his vision on the project and also with the French interior designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who worked with the architect previously on the Louvre and again in Doha, principally in the exhibition gallery, bookshop and offices.
The aim of the architect was to combine modernity with the essence of Islamic architecture. After considerable search he found inspiration in the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, derived from its austerity and simplicity. He found that in this mosque he was coming close to the essence of Islamic architecture, where sunlight brings to life powerful volumes and geometry plays a central role. It was this essence that found its expression in the desert sun of Doha in a building with coffered ceilings and geometric forms paying due respect to Islamic traditions and being solemn rather than sumptuous.
Unlike the simple and austere exterior of the museum, the interior similarly following the Islamic tradition is intensely decorative. The decorative art of the Islam -the complexity of the geometry - is absolutely superb and the architect pays proper homage in the design of the interior spaces.
The collection emanated from a systematic effort by the Emir of Qatar, Al Thani who had the vision of a world-class museum of Islamic Art. This resulted in the museum and an outstanding collection of objects representing the highest expression of Islamic artistic culture, covering lands from Spain to Central Asia and India and ranging in date from the earliest Islamic period to the nineteenth century. The collection numbers presently five hundred items which comfortably occupy an exhibition space of 5000 square meters of which thirty are presented in the book. They comprise carpets, textiles, miniature paintings, calligraphy, metalwork and ceramics.
The most poignant object in the exhibition is the Jade Pendant. Carved from pure white jade, the finely incised inscription consist mainly of verses from the Qu'ran;but also detail the full titles of Shah Jahan and the date AH 1041. The pendant, of a type known as haldili, was worn to cure the wearer of 'palpitations', such as those caused by grief. Shah Jahan at this time was heartbroken at the loss of his beloved wife, known as Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in the June of that year. So this amulet, an intensely personal and intimate object, was worn by Shah Jahan to help him in his private grief, even as he built the world's most famous public monument to the love of a man for his wife:the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.
A word on exhibition design:Wilmotte has played on a subtle range of dark, high quality materials that stand back and allow the dramatically lit objects to take centre stage. The intentionally oversized display cases allow the works to appear to flow in space imposing their own scale;Wilmotte also created a full line of minimalist furniture and light fixtures for the entire museum and developed the signage and visual identity for the Institution.
Throughout the Museum, and the Education Centre, state-of-the-art connections have been provided for computers, video screens and every conceivable device. This may well be the most sophisticated and complete museum design project ever carried out.