The Frick Pittsburgh museum has postponed an exhibition of Islamic art, citing concerns regarding the ongoing war in Gaza. The planned exhibition, Treasured Ornament: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art, features ancient and modern Islamic glassware, ceramics, metalwork, painting, weaponry and more, which the Frick said in a 3 October press release sought to invoke “the rich history of the Islamic world and the shared human experiences that bind us”.
The museum announced the postponement of the exhibition on 17 October, ten days after Hamas’s attack on Israel. While the decision has elicited criticism from Muslim civil rights groups in the US, the exhibition remains unscheduled on the museum’s website.
As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported, the museum initially did not plan to broadcast news of the postponement, hoping that a lack of outside attention or internal communication would allow for a quiet retraction of the proposed dates and subject. A 17 October statement attributed the rescheduling of the show to ”an unforeseen scheduling conflict”, suggesting that the war in Gaza was not a factor in the decision.
Following the 17 October statement, Elizabeth Barker, the museum's executive director, told the Tribune Review: “When war broke out in the Middle East, we were as heartbroken as everyone, and we realised that we were about to open an exhibition that a forgiving person would call insensitive, but for many people, especially in our community, would be traumatic.”
Additional concern was given with regard to museum staff, as Barker added: “The key point is that we didn’t want to put our front-of-house people in the impossible position of discussing the war because we care about them and don’t want them to be vulnerable.”
In response to the museum’s actions, Christine Mohamed, the executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, said “it’s disheartening to witness such insensitivity when blanket statements are made about an entire religion, particularly when they have the potential to incite harm in the Pittsburgh Muslim community. We cannot overlook the trauma and suffering experienced by the Palestinian people, with more than 8,000 lives lost, including almost 4,000 innocent children. The extent to which this tragedy is overshadowed underscores a troubling lack of empathy and humanity—something that even the most forgiving person would find deeply disturbing.”
Barker addressed Mohamed’s comments in an interview with WESA, stating that: “This postponement was never intended to be a political statement. At the core of the Frick's mission is sharing art, history and nature that create experiences of discovery, inspiration and learning that bring people together and enrich our lives and the cultural fabric of our region.”
While Barker and Mohamed are both referring primarily to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, which as of 1 November has reportedly claimed more than 8,000 Palestinian and 1,400 Israeli lives, they also note concerns for Pittsburgh’s Jewish population, and the 2018 terrorist attack against a synagogue in the city.
Adam Hertzmann, the spokesman for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told WESA: “Equating Islamic art and Muslims in general with Hamas is certainly biased and is certainly something we’re against.” He added that he believes “that few people in the Jewish community would have been concerned about an exhibit on Islamic art because we understand that has nothing to do with Hamas, which is a terrorist organisation”.
At present, a statement on the museum's website cites a lack of “sufficient historical and cultural context” as a reason for the exhibition’s postponement. The page continues to explain that “presenting the show as originally conceived elsewhere, years ago, risked trivialising Islamic culture at an extraordinarily complex time and turning an intended educational opportunity into a divisive political touchstone, a source of unintended insensitivity or offence, and a distraction from our important service to the entire community”.