Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2005
Issue No. 773
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Surfing Islamic art

The first ever virtual museum on Islamic art and architecture in the Mediterranean, launched last week, gives navigators an opportunity to explore the splendid Islamic monuments of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Nevine El-Aref navigates

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From top: Fatimid plate from the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo; Ottoman painting featuring Sultan Ahmet I from the National Museum of Scotland; Zeitouna Mosque in Tunisia; Silver enamelled jewellery box from the National and Archaeological Museum of Madrid; Umayyad brass astrolab from Scotland; Ayyubid earthenware horseman from the National Museum of Damascus; Mameluke brass inlaid table with silver from Cairo

The second phase of Museum with no Frontiers project (MWNF) -- aimed at developing cultural relations between countries north and south of the Mediterranean by enhancing the landmarks of a shared history -- has been a year in the making. It finally saw the light last Friday.

"The Discover Islamic Art Virtual Museum" gives instant access to 850 artefacts and 385 monuments, linking every Islamic item exhibited to sites on the MWNF itineraries, which was created between 1999 and 2004.

The electronic display was achieved through the installation of a special network through 17 European and Mediterranean museums in 14 countries -- Algeria, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Kingdom -- as a gateway to a veritable museum-with-no-frontiers on Islamic art and architecture in the Mediterranean., which is available in English, French and Arabic in addition to the local language of each participating country, creates an innovative exhibition style showing the Islamic heritage of the Mediterranean basin, alongside the collections of Islamic art held by the participating museums, within a virtual environment. It will be presented as a unique "open-air" museum of Islamic art through embracing 2,250 monuments and archaeological sites from the Umayad period (661-750) up to the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922).

By visiting the website surfers will be able to admire objects from various museums in relation to each other as well as placing them in context with the monuments and archaeological sites from which they originated. They can explore Islamic art and architecture in situ through navigating along 81 virtual themed trails. They can also uncover the international extent of various artistic movements and understand the significance of art and archaeology as material witnesses to several historical events.

Eva Schubert, chairperson and director of the MWNF, says that in addition to its permanent collection and the MWNF exhibition trails, the site includes a high-tech database equipped with an open search facility that allows multifaceted research providing students all over the world with access to an extraordinary source of information. "In fact, the MWNF virtual museum is an unrivalled source of information for visitors who can either follow one of the suggested itineraries or choose their own route according to their priorities and interests," Schubert says.

In the atrium are information on the development and corporate structure of MWNF and its latest news, along with the most recent press releases and list of all available press texts. Another section is the virtual book and travel shop which makes available all the titles published by MWNF.

"It is not possible to purchase books, but visitors will find all the information they need on how and where to place their orders," Schubert says. As for the travel section, which will be installed in mid-2006, this will provide access to a list of tours and services offered by the MWNF partner Travel Agents. Direct contact with a local travel agent in each country will be also available. The virtual office for those working for the MWNF allows curators of all participating museums to continue their current collaboration and to realise other future joint projects.

At the same time, a comprehensive curatorial contribution carried out by experts from all the participating countries has made it possible to establish, for each object or monument, a series of links to relate items and define the contents of the 17 thematic exhibitions that will be launched in the Spring of 2007. These will offer explanations in eight languages. In April a temporary exhibition will be launched on the website, while computer terminals in each participating museum will be installed in an attempt to provide more access to the virtual museum and transform the virtual dimension into a natural extension of the exhibition being visited.

"This project is truly expressing the aims of the Barcelona Declaration which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year," Schubert says. In November 1995 the Barcelona Declaration created a comprehensive framework for Euro-Mediterranean cooperation and established a partnership between the European Union and 12 countries of North Africa and the Middle East -- Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey -- to promote security and political, economic, social and cultural cooperation.

Discover Islamic Art is made possible by the European Union's Euromed Heritage Programme, which contributed 80 per cent of the overall project cost of ê3,143,283,60. The remaining budget has been financed by the consortium of partners and the MWNF as well as the private sponsors, including ê75,000 from the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.

In May 2007 the involvement of the European Commission will end and the Discover Islamic Art Virtual Museum will be self- financed.

"Discover Islamic Art is the most ambitious and exciting project yet conceived by MWNF," says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who describes its establishment as a real challenge. "The new technology has made it possible to see Islamic art in a way that we never imagined before."

Hawass points out that this website offers a means to make Islamic heritage -- not just the ancient Egyptian treasure -- known worldwide through providing all the information and description otherwise needed on several Islamic sites, and giving access to each museum's webpage.

Ali Radwan, head of the General Arab Archaeologists Union, says the site represents the richest information and media resource on the Islamic cultural heritage available on Internet today. "It really has joined one of the world's oldest civilisations with the latest innovations in technology," Radwan says.

The head of Ancient Egyptian antiquities at SCA, Sabri Abdel-Aziz, believes that the newly-created website is a good means of promoting every participating country as a tourist destination.

"It is a great opportunity for Egypt's visitors to explore in-depth the different Islamic archaeological sites," Abdel-Aziz says. "The exhibition trail takes in the finest and most beguiling examples of the art of this period. The trail through various cities offers a new experience to tourists: art and architecture as a living example of history.

"Two or three weeks are not enough to tour Egypt's Islamic monuments, so navigating through Discover Islamic Art will encourages tourists to repeat their visit to Egypt."

Hawass sees Discover Islamic Art as the richest website available to those who are interested in collecting information on Islamic civilisation. It also serves as a professional source for students and travellers who wish to explore the cultural heritage of a country renowned for its splendid ancient civilisations. Despite still being in its infant phase, the site has amassed an incredible number of hits and has been highlighted in newspapers and magazines around the world. For the hundreds of thousands of people around the world for whom touring all Islamic monuments is a life-long dream has virtually made it come true.

Locally global

MUSEUM with no Frontiers (MWNF) is a non-profit organisation founded in 1994 in Vienna, Austria, on the initiative of Eva Schubert, who has dedicated her professional career to developing a new way of designing and managing multilateral cultural projects.

From 1998 to 2001 most of the MWNF activities were coordinated from regional offices in Madrid and Rome, but in 2002 the organisation moved to Brussels as the best place in Europe to coordinate the expanding network, which includes partners from 19 countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. To date, public and private bodies from Algeria, Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Kingdom have joined the MWNF programme.

The MWNF's visionary programme aims at establishing a vast transnational museum that presents works of art architecture and archaeology in the context in which they were created. Inspired by the principle of organising exhibitions without moving the works of art, MWNF uses modern technology to create an exciting new dimension to museums. Visitors are invited to experience a museum not only as a place to admire artefacts on display but also as a gateway to related works of art in other museums, relevant archaeological sites and monuments as well as thematic visits.

By raising awareness of artistic and cultural heritage and promoting investment in restoration and conservation projects, MWNF aims at promoting cultural integration as a means to facilitate political cooperation between different countries and cultures. The MWNF programme provides an opportunity to learn about and enjoy the shared cultural heritage of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in a completely new way. Its orchestration brings together a large number of academics, professionals, photographers, tourist managers, politicians and many other people and organistions participating in the project.

MWNF finances its activities and infrastructure through budgeted projects, donations from private sponsors, income from sales of MWNF publications and the marketing of its methodology and expertise.

The MWNF policy is that history, art and culture are presented from the local perspective, thus facilitating a dialogue between people and cultures bases on shared knowledge.

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