Feb. 10, 2014 5:32 p.m. ET
A detail of ‘Tile’ (early 13th century). With the addition of the Keir Collection, the Dallas Museum of Art will boast the third-largest collection of Islamic art in the country. The Keir Collection of Islamic Art/Dallas Museum of Art
Last week, the Dallas Museum of Art announced that over the next year it will be taking delivery of containers filled with richly colored carpets and delicate textiles, gleaming lusterware and carved rock-crystal, finely wrought metalwork and folios from illustrated manuscripts, intricately decorated book bindings and splendid calligraphy. The almost 2,000 pieces, created from the eighth through 19th centuries from across the Muslim world, will begin arriving in May from London, where Edmund de Unger (1918-2011) collected and lived with them, treasuring them for their beauty and the knowledge they embodied.
Dubbed the Keir Collection, after the home where Hungarian-born de Unger began collecting Islamic art in the 1960s, it arrives in Dallas under a 15-year, renewable loan agreement. Currently the museum has no more than a dozen high-quality Islamic works. But thanks to the Keir, it will boast the only significant museum display of Islamic art in the South and the third-largest museum collection of its kind in the country, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington.
This is not just good news for Dallas; it is a boon to us all. Scholars have long been familiar with the Keir, some through visits to de Unger’s home, most through scholarly writings that include five catalogs de Unger commissioned in the 1970s and ’80s. But the public at large has had only glimpses—the appearance, say, of a folio from the 14th-century Great Mongol Shahnameh on loan to a show or the exhibition in 2007 and 2010 of 110 pieces in “Collector’s Fortune: Islamic Art From the Edmund de Unger Collection” at the Pergamon museum complex in Berlin. The selection included a 15th-century brass candlestick with decorative openwork of arabesques, richly colored brocades from 16th- and 17th-century Turkey, and a 12th-century bowl from Egypt with the kind of luster glaze potters developed to capture the sheen and sumptuousness of gold.
In Dallas, the collection will become accessible in all its depth, from a spectacular Egyptian ewer carved from rock crystal in the late 10th or early 11th century to a trove of some 60 pottery shards. The latter may not at first blush excite, but fragments can be quite beautiful while speaking volumes about technical and artistic mastery. They also, in this instance, attest to the intellectual curiosity that infused de Unger’s collecting habits. Hearing Sabiha Al Khemir, DMA’s senior adviser for Islamic Art, describe visiting de Unger’s home while researching her doctoral thesis on 10th- to 15th-century Islamic art, two things are striking. “His collection,” as she puts it, “has some of the rare, most beautiful lusterware from Mesopotamia and Egypt, and, in fact, some of the most important ceramics outside Egypt.” Ergo, de Unger’s choices were highly informed. He also, she says, changed the placement of his lusterware “according to where the sun was shining.” He believed in the power of beauty.
The deal struck with the DMA promises to uphold de Unger’s aesthetic and scholarly appreciation of Islamic art. The agreement stipulates that the collector’s heirs will assume all transportation and conservation costs, as well as print-publication expenses. In exchange, the DMA will display some 10% of the collection in dedicated galleries—the museum’s director, Maxwell L. Anderson, estimates that as many as 200 to 300 works will rotate in and out. The DMA will also create a digital archive of the works (funds are already in place), lend works to other institutions, and store works in a facility where scholars can, upon request, don white gloves and examine them.
Dallas benefits from the cancellation of an earlier agreement de Unger had with Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art. A mere three years after its signing, the contract was terminated in July 2012 due to what a terse press release described as “fundamentally different ideas for further work with the collection.” This came as a shock, particularly after selections from the Keir had been trotted out with much fanfare in the exhibitions mentioned earlier.
The intensity of the yearlong negotiations between de Unger’s heirs and the DMA suggests that, this time, the parties see eye to eye. Let us fervently hope so, for what we routinely refer to as Islamic art is not an isolated phenomenon but, rather, a vital component of world art history. As Mr. Anderson notes, it is important to connect “the dots between the fields of European art— of the late Middle Ages through the Baroque in particular—with the arts of Islam because you can’t tell one story without the other very effectively. That missing narrative in art history has to be remedied for there to be a complete tale in general art museums such as ours.”
At a local level, the Keir collection will provide teachers in North Texas an unprecedented resource with which to bring alive world religions, history and art. This is particularly valuable in an area that is home to an estimated 150,000 Muslim Americans. The Keir collection will help debunk false stereotypes and offer a historical context to contemporary arts initiatives in Texas’s growing Islamic community. This is not a matter of political correctness: Featuring the contributions of artists from the Islamic world to global cultural exchange and artistic innovation is sound scholarship and responsible museum practice.
Ms. Lawrence writes about Islamic and Asian art for the Journal.