Exhibition: Bridge of Knowledge, The Brunei Gallery, University of London, until March 26 2011
The Arcadian Library is a private, family-owned collection, so it’s unusual for the general public to be given the chance to take a look at the impressive texts it holds.
But in this exhibition, held in collaboration with the Brunei Gallery, an extremely rare collection of publications illustrate the unique relationship between the Middle Eastern and Western worlds.
One of the main themes is the exchange and sharing of knowledge across the millennium, particularly in the fields of science and medicine. But it also addresses the more confrontational dimension to this relationship, such as theological clashes between clerics and scholars.
One display is dedicated to the first copies of the Qur’an printed in Europe. This sits beside early translations of the bible, which were to be used as tools for religious conversion.
Western curiosity in Middle Eastern culture is another feature of the show. The collection contains a set of colourful plates depicting figures of the Ottoman Empire as formidable soldiers.
Over time, the images change into less threatening characters, demonstrating how the West became less wary of the Empire’s military capabilities.
European curiosity in documenting and recording the sights and landscapes of the Middle East is documented through some wonderfully ornate maps.
In particular, the map of Cairo, drawn by the Venetian cartographer Matteo Pagano, is a fantastic exhibit showing an unrivalled level of detail. It is one of only two surviving copies of this work, and the Arcadian Library has published an accompanying book devoted to it.
Although the display is dedicated to exploring historical issues, it is difficult to view these exhibits without using modern tensions as a point of reference. In this regard, the display succeeds in giving a more thorough sense of Islamic and Arab ways of life - something which is often lost on audiences in the West.
This exhibition gives the Muslim world an opportunity to argue its case as an advanced network of different cultures as diverse as the West.
Above all else, the books stand tribute to the Renaissance invention of the printing press. Even without the historical context, the beauty and craftsmanship of these works captivates the imagination.