How a Small Private Museum in Copenhagen is Challenging Post-Truth Politics with Exquisite Decorative Art Works
A museum in downtown Copenhagen is raising awareness about the contribution of Islam to human civilization, and the need for greater understanding of other cultures — something we need in today’s post-truth world.
A group of casually dressed school kids are sitting on the wooden floor in a small room. A miniature from the Arabic translation of Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica from 13th century Baghdad is displayed on the wall. The other wall is showing the Constellation Gemini in an illustrated copy of al-Sufi’s Kitab suwar al-Kawakib (The Book of Fixed Stars) from 17th century Iran. In the middle of the group is their teacher, explaining the items on display.
This is The David Collection, a private museum just a few minutes’ walk from the National Art Gallery of Denmark, not far from downtown Copenhagen. This exceptional museum presents a stunning collection of exquisite decorative Islamic Art, spanning from 7th to 19th century, from Spain to India. It is truly a panorama of the Islamic civilization; its history, science, technology, geography, art, architecture, fashion, warfare and so on.
The museum covers almost every chapter of the Islamic civilization that flourished and declined, from The Prophet Muhammad to mid-19th century India, leaving indelible marks on human history. Each is explained with texts, maps and a careful selection of artworks, coins, textiles, books and tools. As the introduction to the museum says, it presents “…works of art in their historical context … supplemented by special collections on miniature painting, calligraphy, and textiles.” The museum also offers resources outside their chronological and geographical contexts, such as cultural history; the phenomenon of revivals, forgeries, and restoration; and artistic techniques. All these are neatly curated within two floors of a smallish neoclassical building, with amazing love and care.
The David Collection was founded by Christian Ludvig David (1878–1960), a famous Danish lawyer. Apart from his law practice, he earned a fortune from several other business enterprises. David never married and had no heir. As such he planned to set up a museum, funded by a trust with the wealth he left behind. The museum boasts a rich collection of European art as well. But its “raison d’être in a Scandinavian context was its collection of Islamic art”, as the museum says about itself.
In 2018, Munich Film Festival’s Best Film Award went to a Lebanese entry called The Insult (2017). The film revolves around the theme of hatred between two protagonists; one a Christian and the other a Muslim Palestinian refugee. It starts with a small event, but soon flares up into a hotly debated contentious national issue, involving tense courtroom arguments, live TV broadcasts and emotionally charged mobs on the streets of Beirut. As it turns out, the root of the hatred lies in a terrible and sad event that took place more than 40 years ago. On 20th January, 1976, during the Lebanese Civil War, a group of armed Muslim left-wing militants walked into the pristine sea-side town of Damour, executed twenty Phalangist militiamen, killed anywhere between 500 and 1000 civilians. The Christian protagonist, then only 6, was a resident of Damour but was able to run away with his father. The deep scar in the heart of the young boy turned him into a person full of hatred. He never returned to his hometown in the next 45 years, as he was still unable to bear the horror he witnessed there. The film gradually establishes the motif that behind every terrible act of violence or hatred, there is another, and therefore, none is justified. And that the only way forward is to end this vicious cycle through reconciliation. The protagonists, each having his own history of victimization, although from a competing viewpoint, realize this, and reconcile.
The Damour Massacre, as it came to be known, was a direct consequence of Karantina Massacre, not mentioned in the film, in East Beirut that took place just a few days prior. Needless to say, there are many other such events in the history of Lebanon, each a consequence of a preceding one, and followed by another or more, further justifying the case for a reconciliation.
This is where The David Collection stands out. It is facilitating reconciliation with historical facts and their interpretation in the proper contexts. In today’s world of post-truth politics, opinions and beliefs are more valued than facts, debates are framed by appeals to emotion, and objective treatments of history are sidelined. Xenophobic politics has successfully made diversity in a society the cause of all problems, despite ample historical evidence on the contrary. Thousands of years of history is being obliterated by state machineries, pushing millions to the margins, often through extreme violence. School history books are changed to suit narrow political agendas, along with cunning use of films, TV shows, cartoons and the omnipresent social media. We have lost the means to understand and interpret facts, and are easily misguided by unverified “news”. Our understanding of the world is shaped more and more by ahistorical assertions of crafty politicians.
What’s the way out?
Eric Alterman in his eloquent article “The Decline of Historical Thinking” makes a strong case for a broader history education, the lack of which leads to, what he calls, “intellectual inequality”. This results in some people having the resources to try to understand the society while most do not. History tells us about our place in the world, how things became the way they are. With historical thinking, we will be better able to interpret what is happening today, in the light of the past. It helps us to think beyond nationalism, that has almost totally engulfed our being, and is shaping everything that we think and do.
Luckily for us, there are things like The David Collection where we can explore the facts in their historical contexts. Initiatives such as this, and the young men and women sitting there on the floor, are the beacons of hope. These young adults may someday grow up into a new generation of leaders, and guide us out of this sorry state of politics-without-responsibility that we are witnessing worldwide.