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The Representation of Islam in British Museums

Ian Heath


The role of museums in creating and maintaining both cultural identities and their stereotypes is an area of debate and discourse in both archaeology and museology. Despite the long history of the collection and public display of Islamic material there has been no systematic research into either its representation or into public perceptions of these representations. This programme of research represents the first such study of the representation of Islamic material culture in British museums. This commences with the discussion and evaluation of the history of contact between the Islamic world and Europe in general and Britain in particular. Much of the history of this discourse is framed in terms of supra-regional identity, i.e. ‘European’ and ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’. These are constructed identities and the history of their construction is discussed before moving on to consider contemporary issues. In addressing the subject of the representation of Islam in museums, this work undertakes to examine both its production and consumption. The production of representation and the creation of identity are achieved in museums through the medium of the display of material, whilst consumption occurs through the medium of visiting and the meaning made by visitors. In order to evaluate such production displays of Islamic material in museums are the subject of critical analysis. This research has a qualitative element and seeks to tap into the perceptions of museum visitors of current museum displays. Given the role played by museums in the construction of identity the questions underpinning this are firstly, what are the messages they receive about the world of Islam and secondly, what do these displays say about the Islamic world past and present?