Museums Find Value in Sharing Jewels’ History

DOHA, Qatar — An 18th-century turban ornament glistening with diamonds, emeralds and pearls has a fascinating back story, yet almost none of it appeared on the placard that once accompanied the piece in the Museum of Islamic Art.

But on Oct. 6, when the museum is scheduled to reopen after being closed for nearly a year, visitors will see that the reorganization of its nearly 1,100 exhibits — including dozens of pieces of jewelry — also features more detailed labels. Also, digital displays, geared to younger visitors, have been installed in many galleries to explain topics like how to use an astrolabe and the story of early Islamic coinage. And the 3-D tour recently added to the museum’s website is said to be just the beginning of its expansion.

Increasing the information that accompanies exhibits is an approach being adopted by museums from the sprawling Victoria and Albert in London to the small Schmuckmuseum in Pforzheim, Germany. And experts said that the change can be credited, at least in part, to the Covid-19 pandemic, which gave museums time to regroup, refurbish and look to the future.

“There’s been a lot of effort by museums and archives to put everything online for the last 20 years, but what is changing now is that we have moved from one curatorial voice to a much more layered presentation and more voices around one object,” said Dick van Dijk, creative director at Waag, a nonprofit foundation in Amsterdam that examines how technology influences culture.

A lot of museums, Mr. van Dijk said, are considering how to use augmented reality applications and how to mix physical and digital offerings. “We all got used to digital surroundings during Covid, but we want to have that physical experience again, or at least a combination of the two,” he said.

The Museum of Islamic Art’s scheduled reopening, seven weeks before the first matches of the FIFA World Cup, will be the unofficial kickoff for a busy and high-profile season for this small Gulf country. And the undisclosed renovation cost of M.I.A. (pronounced “MEE-uh” by the locals) — as well as the eight new sports stadiums for the soccer tournament now dotting the urban sprawl around Doha — are representations of the massive wealth generated by the country’s oil and natural gas deposits.

When the 376,740-square-foot museum, designed by I.M. Pei, opened in 2008, it showed exhibits as collections of like items, or grouped them by regions of the Muslim world. But the new presentation — selected from its collection of 10,000 objects, including 556 pieces of jewelry — will be a chronological history.

“What we basically are doing with the relaunch is fleshing things out and creating a story line, starting with the origins of Islam” in the 7th century, said Julia Gonnella, director of the museum, on a hard-hat tour in June, as hundreds of construction workers filled the structure with the echoing sounds of hammers and electric saws. “And jewels, like all pieces, are part of the story line: Where they come from, where they were sold. ”

The jeweled turban ornament, for example, previously had a label that said: “Turban ornament, 18th century, India.”

Its new metal placard, however, includes about 200 words on the piece’s history, detailing how such ornaments “formed a vital part of ceremonial Indian dress, and according to Mughal sumptuary laws, could only be worn by royalty, blood relatives of a chief, and honored individuals.” It also mentions some Mughal emperors who wore such turbans, including Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal in the 17th century. (Museum officials said that QR codes, to convey even more information, will be added to the new placards later.)

“Jewelry from South Asia, in particular, is so interesting because it was often for men, not women,” Ms. Gonnella said. “We have pieces that belonged to specific maharajahs. They had so many jewels around them, even in the construction of their palaces and furniture.”

And some of the pieces owned by maharajahs in the late 1800s and early 1900s ended up in Europe, she said, “so we have added more text to explain this sort of thing.”

The evolution of how jewelry evolved across borders and centuries is at the heart of the vast collection of some 2,000 items at the intimate jewelry museum in Pforzheim, which holds 5,000 years of jewelry, including a gold earring from ancient Troy and rare pieces from eras as diverse as the Etruscans and the Baroque period in Europe. The future is scheduled to arrive in the fall with a new app in both iOS and Android and online details of its collection.

“We only have basic information, like captions, in the main room of our historical collection since it’s a protected building historically, and we are not allowed to change much,” said Cornelie Holzach, the museum director, in a phone interview, referring to the museum’s main hall, designed by the architect Manfred Lehmbruck, a student of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and opened in 1961. But “with the new app we started with 100 objects but will expand it gradually. Our goal is to give visitors the opportunity to act like their own curator and learn interactively from whatever objects they choose.”

Work on these new projects coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic and the museum’s closure for about six months during 2020 and 2021. The 12,900-square-foot museum used the time to renovate, upgrade and, in an ironic bit of economic windfall, use 12,000 euros ($12,230) in pandemic-related funding.

“Covid gave us the chance to put more effort into these digital projects,” she said. “The ideas have always been there, but first you need the money and then the manpower. ”

That moment of expansion arrived for the Victoria and Albert in February 2021 when it introduced Explore the Collections, a digital platform that allows access to the museum’s 1.2 million objects, including more than 3,000 pieces of jewelry, accompanied by much more information than is available in the museum itself.

“This new platform comes at a vital time, when the way audiences engage with museums and their collections has changed dramatically, particularly during the last two years of the pandemic,” Tim Reeve, deputy director and chief operating officer at the museum, wrote in an email. He said Explore the Collections “supports the V&A’s goal of revolutionizing access to its collections and diversifying and expanding audiences.”

Increasing its audience was part of the reason that the Museum of Islamic Art, which is run by Qatar Museums, a government agency that oversees several museums, decided to expand the amount of information it displays both in person and online.

“Who is the audience you want to lure?” Ms. Gonnella asked, answering her own question by saying the museum wants to reach both Qatar residents and interested people around the world.

“The local audience learns about the history for the future,” she said. “But the international audience comes here to learn about the Islamic world.”

Online, “creating a certain atmosphere is also part of the refurbishment,” Ms. Gonnella said. “We will have videos about the Silk Road trade, as well as the landscapes of, say, Southeast Asia, which will help to set the tone of where viewers are in the world. A jewelry game in one room will even allow children to dress up virtually with turbans and jewels.”

Bringing in that younger audience is key, she said, and perhaps the most revolutionary idea behind digitizing jewelry collections — and beyond — is the sheer vastness of it all.

“I think online collections are a huge asset, particularly for scholars, and a fabulous part of the digitization of the world,” Ms. Gonnella said. “I look at other collections online to see about lending or borrowing. You can become a specialist by Googling, which was never possible before. The spread of knowledge through digitization is so immense.”

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