Interview: Dr. Navina Haidar, Metropolitan Museum of Art Curator

This interview originally appeared on in November 2011.

Dr. Navina Haidar currently serves as a Curator of Islamic Art at New York City’s iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art. An Oxford-educated scholar who has served at the institution for over a decade, Dr. Haidar oversees one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic Art in the western world.

The 12,000 items in the MET’s Islamic collection cover a period of over 13 centuries, originating from regions as far-flung as Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The mediums themselves are equally diverse, with breathtaking works of calligraphy, metalwork, ceramics, and painting, among others. The common link between is a cultural one, resulting in artifacts both religious and secular in design.

Dr. Haidar’s position has recently placed her at the forefront of a once-in-a-lifetime undertaking: the complete re-imagining of the museum’s Islamic Art section. It has been a renovation several years in the making, with re-furbishing beginning as early back as 2001. When the section re-opens on November 1st, 2011,  the re-named “Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia” section will feature over 1,200 objects on display in 15 galleries.

For better context, can you tell us a little bit about your academic and personal background? How did you come to be involved in art history? What led to the selection of 16th Century Islamic Art as your primary focus?

I did my Ph.D at Oxford University in England. I was also educated at the universities of London and Delhi before that. I came to be involved in art history because I came under the influence of an extraordinary guide and teacher in England, Robert Skelton. He was the former Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum and was also a family friend. He knew me since I was one! And he saw that I loved drawing and painting from the very start, and that I also loved history, and so he encouraged me to study Mughal painting. He guided me and many other students (including many Indians like me) towards the study of Indian and Islamic art. In doing so, he understood that he was not just opening up a fascinating lifetime of enquiry into a field of immense beauty and interest, but that he was also providing us with a key to understanding our own past heritage. It was a very valuable gift. And Robert is dearly loved by many in the field. He is now in his 80s and we consider him to be a living treasure.

Can you explain what responsibilities a Curator fulfills at the MET? Are you primarily responsible for preservation of pieces? Are you involved in the selection and arrangement of the exhibits? How long have you been in this position?

I have been at the Met since 1999 – almost 12 years. I started as an Assistant Curator, then was promoted to Associate Curator in 2005, and now have been made Curator. As curators we are responsible for the collection of works of art in our particular department. Our duties include the scholarly research and publication of the collection, organizing exhibitions, making acquisitions, spreading knowledge and appreciation of the works and also some administrative duties. We work closely with the Conservation departments who are responsible for the physical preservation of the collection, the Collections staff, who help with the display of the collection and other branches of the museum. I have spent much of my time planning the new galleries, which is a bit unusual because its not often that one gets to work on permanent galleries. Happens once every couple of generations…

Can you talk a little bit about the renovation of the Islamic Art section? What are the plans for the new space, and what was the overall objective?

The new galleries for the Islamic department collections are about to open at the end of this month. We will be unveiling 15 galleries covering 1300 years of art from almost all parts of the Islamic world. The galleries will be celebrating the diversity of the Islamic world, bringing forth new interpretations of the material in a magnificent new setting with plenty of new information and educational materials about the collection. Please come and visit after November 1.

Are there any recent acquisitions by the MET’s Islamic Art Wing that you are particularly pleased about? 

We have some very exciting new acquisitions to show – from India we have a magnificent gold 16th century dagger from the southern Islamic kingdom of Golkonda or Bijapur. We also have some fantastic new Persian and Indian paintings. We also have a folio from the Blue Quran and one from the ‘Nurse’ Quran, both new acquisitions. And much more…

The Islamic world has taken on rather ominous associations in the minds of many Americans since 9/11, with influential media and political personalities depicting it as backwards, provincial, and violent. I am wondering if you could suggest any pieces in the MET’s Islamic wing that might alter some of these more negative perceptions.

The objects in the collection span over 13 centuries and offer a long view of the achievements, interactions and expressions of artists in the Islamic world (many of whom were not Muslim). This historical perspective allows us to see that today’s perceptions, especially negative ones, are only a fraction of the larger picture which is rich, complex and filled with many extraordinary high points. Almost every object tells its own fascinating story – I would suggest that you look at our website or upcoming new catalogue because its hard for me to cite individual objects here without images etc. But there is a lot of interesting info on line, especially on the Timeline of Art History, including thematic essays related to this issue.

You recently designed and narrated an online exhibition for the MET website which focused on the notion of “Dark Energy”. What led to your selection of this topic, and what appealed to you about the items that you chose?

Dark Energy is one of many such features by my museum colleagues on Connections. The idea behind Connections is to offer an individual point of view or insight into the museum collection, which in totality numbers almost 3 million objects. Connections offers one more route into this vast reservoir! Its meant to be stimulating or a thought provoking, so I tried to think of a point of view about the art that offered that. Dark Energy came about because I have always been fascinated by mood and psychology. The expression of those elements through art is a big subject of course, but I was very inspired by the recent acquisition of a picture of the Indian goddess of destruction seated in a landscape of decomposing body parts. Sounds scary, but she is actually the manifestation of a very important aspect of Indian religion – the recognition and acceptance of the forces of universal destruction and regeneration.

I have another Connections piece called ‘Better Broken’ where I argue that some works of art are more powerful and interesting as fragments than as complete works. Please check it out. Apparently it might be shown on the Washington Post website. 

Much of the success of the Connections pieces have to do with the brilliant editing and direction of Teresa Lai and her team.

You are a contributor for not one, but two books being published later this year by the MET. How long have these been in the works, and how was the experience?

The books are collaborations with other colleagues and I am very pleased with them. I wrote various sections of the catalogue accompanying the new galleries, which was a great experience. My colleague Maryam Ekhtiar kept the whole complex project involving many authors on line. The second book is on the arts of the Deccan Sultans of India. A new subject with fantastic works of art. It was great working with the Editorial department at the Met on these projects.

Although I’m certain that this could be an exhaustive list, I was hoping that you could name a few of your favorite pieces in the MET that are a little off the beaten track. 

Favorite pieces off the beaten track – in our department I love an 11th century chess set from Iran which is made of ceramic. The pieces are small but at the same time chunky and monumental; ancient but somehow very contemporary in their shapes. It’s amazing how they have this dual nature. Another favorite is the Quranic calligraphy of the Nurse’s Quran page. The vellum page, the large letters, somehow look like elegant sails. The ink is beautifully applied – strong yet translucent. Very exciting. Last favorite from our department – the Mughal Indian portrait of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. Perfect, regal, stunning (just like the monument he built).

From other departments – I love the  Duccio Mother and Child. It has a sweetness that makes it stand out. Also I love the European master drawings in the Drawings and Prints dept….

What are some of the upcoming exhibitions and events coming up in the Islamic Art section after it opens? What would you recommend?

Once the galleries open, every 6 weeks there will be a program to enjoy – either music, dance, lecture, or something like that. I would recommend the inaugural concert that combines Moroccan and Pakistani singers. Also the “Women in Islam” panel. And the interfaith panel. All on the website.

The MET’s website:

Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia:

“Dark Energy” Online Exhibit:

“Better Broken” Online Exhibit: