I took my sophomore honors seminar students to the Metropolitan Museum yesterday for a docent-led tour of the Islamic art galleries. In the course of the talk, the docent made an old-school, outright, not-at-all-subtle racist gesture. It was a small incident but it was shocking. And in the current climate I refuse to be one of those professors who lets the small things go unchallenged and allows them to heap up, unrelenting and unrestrained, upon the lives of students of color. This is the letter that I wrote to the relevant museum personnel:
(Click to enlarge the letter, or click below for embedded text.)
Edited on 12/22/15 to include response from the director of the museum:
4 December 2015
Dr. Thomas Campbell, Director
Dr. Sheila Canby, Head of Islamic Art
Ms. Sandra Jackson-Dumot, Chairman of Education
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10012
cc: Dr. Richard Kalb, Associate Dean for Students, New York University
Dear Dr. Campbell, Dr. Canby, and Ms. Jackson-Dumot:
One of the great pleasures of teaching at New York University is the ability to bring my students to see objects related to my classes on medieval Islamicate Spanish literature and cultural history. As you know, the city boasts a dizzying array of possibilities, but the Metropolitan Museum has consistently been one of the most productive sites to visit. In the five years that I have taught at NYU I have brought groups to the Islamic Art galleries, to the Vélez Blanco patio, and to the Cloisters; and it has always been a positive and enlightening experience for them.
Unfortunately, I find myself in the position of writing to you with respect to the docent-led tour of the Islamic Art galleries that my students in NYU’s Presidential Honors Scholars program attended today, a tour marred by an incident of overt racism on the part of the docent that was shockingly out of character with the ethos that I know the museum to create both in its public outreach and in its always-cutting-edge display of and thoughtfulness about Islamic art. We are currently in a cultural and historical a moment that is seeing heightened racial and religious tensions amongst college students and in the population at large. Particularly when some of that tension is directed against Muslims, I would hope that a department of Islamic Art would see as a part of its broader mission a responsibility to diminish, rather than to promote, racism in all guises within its educational programs, to fairly treat the question of race within Islam, and to eliminate racist characterizations of Islamic and Islamicate works of art.
While introducing the students to the mina’i-ware Kashan ceramics painted with figural representations, the docent told the students that the figures painted on one of the Bahram Gur bowls (accession number 57.36.2) “don’t look Iranian.” She continued: “Iranians are Aryans, and these are —” and rather than finishing her sentence, she pulled the corners of her eyes up with her fingers. And so, rather than serving as an opportunity to illustrate the racial diversity that exists within the Islamic world, that moment instead became a crude illustration of something else entirely.
Although I am not an art historian or a museum professional, my doctoral education included an art-historical component; during the course of my training and in my subsequent research and reading in the area of material culture and book history I have seen over and over again that it is the Met has led the way in how to think about Islamic art in a museum context. The discrepancy between the innovative thinking behind the gallery displays and the seemingly-lacking preparation of the docents is wide and surprising and, to the point, not unconnected from the question of racist remarks and gestures slipping into presentations.
After the end of the tour I spoke with the group, which included both Asian-American and non-Asian students, to express my own horror and genuine surprise at the inclusion of such a racist gesture in the course of the museum visit and my sorrow that they had been exposed to it in an educational setting. As we debriefed, we spoke about the racist gesture in conjunction with the very outmoded and religiously- and culturally-essentializing way in which the collection was presented; for example, the students were told that the Dome of the Rock is not Islamic because of the Byzantine character of its mosaic program, and that the inclusion of dragon motifs on objects from both the eastern and western ends of the Islamic world is due to the inherent Islamic nature of the form following its importation from Chinese art. I found myself wondering whether the two things, the overt racism and this essentializing approach were not fundamentally connected in some way. It is, perhaps, easier to view the representations of central Asian figures on a bowl as so strange and alien as to merit crude gesticulation if one is presenting a view of Islam as a single, unitary culture that runs from the steppes of Iran, straight and unchanging, through the historic realm of al-Andalus.
I will, of course, continue to bring groups of students to the Metropolitan Museum because of the unparalleled way in which access to its collections can enhance a course or a program, but I will be much more cautious when making a decision about whether to lead a group myself or to request a docent-led tour since right now I cannot be sure that my students will not be presented the material framed in a deeply objectionable, outdated, and outright racist way. I recognize that this may well be an isolated incident of a rogue docent who is not familiar with contemporary cultural norms surrounding discussions of race in art, but I nonetheless hope that this is something that your education and visitor services departments can work to rectify. If possible, I would very much appreciate hearing how this matter is addressed institutionally so that I can better assess which museum resources I should make use of in my teaching going forwards.
S.J. Pearce, PhD
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures
New York University
13-19 University Place, rm. 425
New York, NY 10003