British Museum

British Museum turns to Mecca and its holy pilgrimage

Exhibition aims to unravel the mysteries of the Hajj to non-Muslims


The British Museum (BM) is planning an exhibition on the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, for 2012. Neil MacGregor, the director of the BM, visited Saudi Arabia last year to discuss the concept, which is being developed with Saudi museum curators.

Muslims have a sacred duty to try to go once in their lifetime on a pilgrimage to Mecca, as did the Prophet Muhammad with his followers in 632AD. Held annually, it draws around three million pilgrims (more than half from abroad).

Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the holy city of Mecca, so the Hajj remains something of a mystery to those of other faiths. The BM exhibition would help explain its significance to a wider audience. It would probably be the first museum exhibition devoted to the Hajj from a global perspective.

Among the objects that the BM hopes to borrow are sumptuous gifts given over the centuries for the sanctuaries in Mecca, particularly by the Ottomans. Pilgrimages will be documented in the exhibition through manuscripts, wall paintings and early photographs. The Hajj continues to inspire contemporary artists, and this will also be reflected.

The BM is discussing loans with the National Museum of Saudi Arabia and the King Saud University Museum in Riyadh. Important material is held by the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, which the BM is also approaching. Other objects are likely to come from Paris, Cairo and Timbuktu. In the UK, some items would be from the BM’s own collection and possibly the Nasser David Khalili Collection of Islamic Art.

The Hajj exhibition is being curated by Venetia Porter, a curator in the BM’s Middle East department. (As a non-Muslim, she can never visit Mecca.) Although the project is at an early stage, it is hoped that it will open in January 2012 in the round Reading Room. The date of the Hajj shifts annually, but in 2011 it will be in November, shortly before the BM show.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 210 February 2010