V&A opens its £5.4m Islamic gallery

The new display is entirely funded by the Jameel family of Saudi Arabia



The new Islamic gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) opens on 20 July, entirely funded with £5.4m from Saudi Arabia’s Jameel family. Abdul Latif Jameel died in 1993, and the gallery is dedicated to his memory by his son Mohammed. The Jeddah-based Abdul Latif Jameel Group is involved in car sales, electronics, real estate and consumer financing, and it also operates in the UK through Hartwell Plc.

The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art is near the main Cromwell Road entrance of the museum, and will display 400 of the 10,000 objects from the V&A’s Islamic collection.

The earlier display, which dated back to the 1950s, was closed in 2004, and highlights which had been on show were then sent on a touring exhibition to Washington, Fort Worth, Tokyo and Sheffield. This tour cost £1m (funded by the Jameel donation), and was seen by 285,000 people.

The centrepiece of the new gallery is the Ardabil carpet, the world’s earliest carpet with an inscribed date. Made in 946 in the Islamic calendar (AD 1539-40), the huge (11 x 5 metre) carpet had until recently been hung on a gallery wall. Redisplaying it was by far the most difficult challenge facing the gallery designers.

Conservators felt it was too fragile to hang the carpet vertically, and a horizontal display would give visitors a much better idea of its original appearance. Laying glazing above the carpet was considered, to allow visitors to walk over it, but this would have required visually-intrusive thick glass and metal supports, and the surface of the glazing would soon have become scratched.

Instead it was decided to encase the carpet with vertical non-reflective glass, and the result is the largest museum display case anywhere in the world. It was built by Italy’s Laboratorio museotecnico Goppion (which also made the case for the Mona Lisa in the Louvre).

Rather than having the upper canopy resting directly on the glass, the 1.5 tonne horizontal structure is suspended from the ceiling. This avoided the need for visually-intrusive metal supports between the glass panes and enabled the use of relatively thin glass.

The horizontal canopy hangs just above head level, serving several purposes. Most importantly, it keeps out dust. The canopy has soundproofing material, helping to provide a contemplative atmosphere in the gallery. The horizontal structure distracts the eye away from the vertical divisions between the glass panes. Finally, the canopy houses 160 lights, providing even illumination over the carpet. These will be on a maximum illumination of 50 lux for ten minutes every half hour, to preserve the light-sensitive blue dye.