By Ida Cecilie Guttman Gammeltoft, Asmus Sebastian Kobbernagel og Peter Krøgh Lundby Gravesen
On a sunny spring morning, we visited The David Collection as part of the Master programme of Cultural Encounters. The subject of the day: the museum’s exhibition of Islamic art. The David Collection holds the eighth largest collection of Islamic art in the Western world, although the museum views itself first and foremost as ‘a collector of beautiful objects’, rather than as a museum of religious art.
Starting our tour, we pass through the ground level with white walls and impressive portraits of white Danish men and women of the past. On the second floor, we sense a change of atmosphere: the rooms become smaller, the ceiling lowered and slanting in places. We feel that we are moving into a place of sanctity. The surfaces are made of dark brown wood carved in intricate patterns. The lighting is dimmed, a soft golden hue making it seem as though the artefacts themselves were illuminating the room. We move from angular room to angular room, losing sense of direction and time. In this space of quiet reverence, one would never suspect that the items on display might be subject to controversy in the outside world.
However, today as in the past, religion is often a source of controversy. Had The David Collection branded itself solely as a museum of Islamic art, it might have been a very controversial institution indeed, given the present political climate in Denmark. In this light, it is interesting to see in the exhibition a large map of the Islamic world, illustrating the time when Muslims ruled a great expanse, including the area now known as Spain. Among other things, the map tells the story of this area, explaining how the Muslims ruled by allowing the practice of other religions than their own. Thus, the area enjoyed a time of peace and multiculturalism, quite contrary to the previous Catholic rule known for hunting and killing Jews, Muslims and anyone deemed heretic.
One of the first items of the exhibition proper holds a Quran from the early 8th century. Divided into thirty small books, each representing a chapter of the Quran, eight of these are on display. Each page is handcrafted and decorated with beautiful patterns of gold, red and blue flowers and suns. Rectangular columns of real gold frame the black Arabic lettering spelling the words of the prophet Muhammad. Not immediately observed is the smaller red print under the black, translating the Arabic into Sanskrit.
To an outsider, and also to most Muslim visitors, it seems that all of the Islamic artefacts are displayed with great reverence, suitably underlining their sacred nature, while at the same time stressing their qualities as works of art. However, some Muslim communities have argued that the words of Muhammad are meant only for the eyes of the ordained, and must not be translated, as they can only be upheld through the Arab language.
At the same time, some Danes have been known to argue for the incompatibility of the Danish and Islamic cultures. David’s collection, however, also boasts one of the finest collections of Danish ‘Golden Age’ paintings, and therefore enjoys the goodwill of not only Muslim communities but also communities with nationalist agendas.
Over the years, The David Collection has intentionally, as well as by luck, succeeded in creating a sacred space for very different groups in Danish society. One might say that for some, it is a space of grudging respect for ‘the other’ and reverence for one’s own. For the rest of us, it is a strong aesthetic experience and an insight into a religious world that we know little of.