Benaki Museum’s new annex focuses on Islamic culture

The new annex of the Benaki Museum that is scheduled to open toward the end of June in a neoclassical building complex in the area of Kerameikos will finally put on view one of the most important collections owned by the museum. The Museum of Islamic Art of the Benaki Museum will present together a selection (1,500 out of its 10,000 holdings) of an Islamic art collection that is considered one the most prestigious of its kind worldwide. Chief curators Anna Balian and Mina Moraitou have studied and classified the holdings as well as structured the permanent exhibition so as to follow the diversity of Islamic culture chronologically across its various regions. Four large exhibition halls will cover 13 centuries of culture, starting from the early Islamic period of the seventh to 12th centuries, the so-called classical period of Islamic art (12th to 16th centuries) and the period up to the 19th century; it is here that a group of precious jewelry from the Qajar period in Iran will also be shown. A separate hall will replicate an original Islamic domestic interior, consisting of a magnificent marble floor taken from a 17th century mansion in Cairo as well as a fountain and other treasures from Turkey and Iran. The exhibition’s holdings are based on the collection of Islamic art that museum founder Antonis Benakis amassed during the last decade of the 19th century in Egypt. Later acquisitions and substantial donations expanded the collection’s original wealth. Besides these, the museum will also show items that have been borrowed or are on permanent loan from museums abroad: 17th century Persian ceramics from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and 16th century Ottoman tiles from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon help complement the original collection and reveal the broader scope of Islamic art. The neoclassical building complex (a three-story and a two-story building connected for the purpose by architect Pavlos Kalligas) that is to house the Museum of Islamic Art is located in the heart of the historic center of Athens (at 22 Assomaton and 12 Dipylou streets) and was donated by the late Lambros Eftaxias to the Benaki Museum – he was the former president of the board. The interior of the building has been entirely reconstructed but the facade has been left intact. Ancient walls During the reconstruction work, a large part of Athens’s ancient fortification walls was discovered; the basement area has been designed so as to allow the visitor to view this important archaeological find. Another interesting view of the capital’s urban landscape will be offered from the museum’s coffee shop on the top floor, where visitors will enjoy a panoramic image of the Acropolis, Philopappou Hill, Plaka and the Athens Observatory as well as the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos and the southern part of Athens. The costs of alterations to the existing building were covered by Ministry of Environment, Town Planning and Public Works. The rest of the costs required to open the Museum of Islamic Art were financed by the Economy Ministry and the Cultural Olympics; each offered the sum of 300,000 euros. Preparations are now in their final stage. With the opening of the museum, a collection that was fragmentarily shown in major museums around the world will finally be presented as a whole, thus allowing a better understanding of the complexity and diversity of Islamic culture.

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