The museums and colleges at the University of Cambridge hold extremely important collections of Islamic art, acquired by faculty, students and alumni, from the 19th century until today and from excavations. But Islamic Art at Cambridge remains very little-known, researched or – with the exception of one gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum – displayed. This is exacerbated by the lack of a specialist curator of Islamic art, the absence of a permanent teaching role in this subject within the University of Cambridge, and the fragmented nature of the approach to studying Islamic material culture across the various Cambridge colleges and departments. The small Fitzwilliam Museum gallery was last refurbished in the 1980s, has limited and out-of-date interpretation, and focuses predominantly on the Museum’s collection of Islamic ceramics.

The Fitzwilliam collection is particularly strong in ceramics, especially medieval pottery from Iran. This collection was considerably enhanced in 2019 by the donation through the Cultural Gift Scheme of 70 objects previously on long-term loan from the Ades family; these are associated with the ‘Jurjan hoard’, a cache of well-preserved ceramic objects dating to the late 12th/early 13th century. The objects in this hoard are spread across several museums, but the Fitzwilliam holds the largest collection. The museum also holds important manuscripts and paintings from Mughal India, Persia and North Africa, in addition to Persian and Indian armour, coins from Islamic states, and funerary material from Fatimid Egypt.

Beyond the Fitzwilliam collections, there are significant holdings of Islamic material in the Cambridge University Library, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and in colleges such as King’s and Newnham, though the extent of college collections has not been properly assessed. Within Cambridge, there are also important research projects that incorporate Islamic material culture, such as the Silk Roads Programme and the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit.

Several projects in recent years have attempted to correct the lack of knowledge and awareness of the Fitz’s Islamic collections, in particular by cataloguing the Islamic ceramics and works on paper. But the information in the Museum’s collections database remains minimal or non-existent, limiting their usefulness of these projects to researchers and students.

A number of live projects at the Fitzwilliam are now focusing on specific parts of the Islamic collections: the project ‘Global Connections: Arts from the Islamic World and the Fitz’ looks at the technology of ceramic production in Iran through non-destructive technical analyses, plaster casts of ornament from the Alhambra Palace, and embroideries from the eastern Mediterranean; the Hindustani Airs project researches a late 18th-century album made in Lucknow on court music and entertainment. The Shahnama project – a digital index of illustrations from the Shahnama, or Persian Book of Kings, in global collections – is also hosted by Cambridge University. In 2021-22, Mariam Rosser-Owen was the inaugural CVC Global Humanities Visiting Professor in Islamic Art at the University of Cambridge, hosted by the Department of History of Art (HoA) and the Fitzwilliam Museum, focusing on the Islamic ceramics collection.

The current project “Islamic Art in Cambridge” is funded by The Barakat Trust through their Hands on Islamic Art initiative. It aims to catalyse the momentum of these recent projects to embed Cambridge in global scholarly networks, exchange knowledge, increase public profile and inform future strategies. We plan two workshops – focusing on Islamic ceramics and works on paper (the second in collaboration with the University Library) – with invited experts from across the UK and abroad, to give them the opportunity to discover objects they may not know about, as well as to share their knowledge through specialist conversations with Cambridge University students and members of community groups. Specific outcomes of this project will be enhanced catalogue records for key objects, the connection of Cambridge researchers and institutions with a wider network of Islamic art experts, an innovative cross-faculty postgraduate seminar, publicly accessible outputs through a series of short object-specific podcasts, and the engagement with community groups. It is hoped that the project would provide the foundations for future strategies around these collections, particularly around the redisplay of the Fitzwilliam’s Islamic gallery, and permanent curatorial and teaching expertise.

Image: The Fitzwilliam Museum (2024) “” Web page available at: Accessed: 2024-05-09 10:28:32