Cultural policy United Kingdom

Unrest in Syria scuppers Royal Academy show in London

Two years in the works, the exhibition was scheduled to open in September 2013 and could have travelled to the Louvre

The Royal Academy

LONDON. The Royal Academy (RA) last month cancelled a major exhibition on Syria, because of its government’s repressive reaction to calls for reforms. Although not yet announced, the show was scheduled to open in September 2013.

Kathleen Soriano, the director of exhibitions at the RA, said the decision had been taken with regret: “Unfortunately, due to the dramatic changes that are going on and the political positions of the governments involved, it is not the right moment for us to move forward. But we do hope that the preparatory work will be put to use at a later date.”

The plan was to show 400 antiquities, 40% of which would have come from Syrian museums, including those in Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra. The remaining loans would have been from European and North American collections. The exhibition was to have been part of the RA’s “civilisations” series, which has included the Aztecs (2002-03) and Byzantium (2008-09).

The RA has been involved in the project for more than two years, with guest curator Robert Hillenbrand, an Islamic art specialist at Edinburgh University, already on board. Close relations had been developed with Syrian museums.

Financial support for the museums had been promised by the newly established Syria Heritage Foundation, backed by London-based billionaire Wafic Said. The foundation’s president is Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of the Syrian leader.

The British Syrian Society was also backing the RA exhibition. Its honorary president is Syria’s ambassador in London, Sami Khiyami (recently excluded from the royal wedding in London). The RA is only too aware that support from the present Syrian regime, which has recently proved so brutally repressive, could well have endangered the exhibition.

Discussions had also been underway to present the Syrian exhibition at the Louvre in 2014. The RA hopes to resurrect the project when political stability returns, but funding will have to be re-examined. Plans are being developed for an alternative exhibition in 2013.

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