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9 May 2003

Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Teaching Islamic Art: A Workshop with Professor Robert Hillenbrand

This one-off workshop, led by Professor Robert Hillenbrand (University of Edinburgh), was organised by GLAADH for teachers in higher education wishing to incorporate into their teaching issues around the art of the Islamic world, particularly prior to the 20th century. Participants included representatives from the universities of De Montfort, East Anglia, Middlesex, Reading, Sussex, Warwick, Anglia Polytechnic University, the Open University, and the V&A, and ranged from Western Medievalists and Byzantinists, to early modernists, and teachers whose primary expertise lies in other areas of study.

photograph of Professor Robert Hillenbrand and participants at the Teaching Islamic Art workshop on 9 May 2003

The day covered issues of methodology and definition, teaching strategies, resources and core bibliographies. After welcomes from Tim Stanley (V&A) and Professor Catherine King (OU), Hillenbrand opened with a discussion of prevailing institutional, departmental, academic and curricular eurocentricism. In art history, this was demonstrated by the error-ridden 472 words dedicated to Islamic Art in Gombrich's (in)famous best-selling account, with which many an undergraduate is familiar. For Hillenbrand, teaching Islamic art can be undertaken from any background, but needs to begin with the deconstruction of dominant eurocentric and orientalist narratives and cultural stereotypes.

A question and answer session explored historiographies, questions of language, power, religion, research methods (the need to "get hands and feet dirty") and resources. Hillenbrand stressed the viability of teaching the subject with no knowledge of the language, and suggested that an Arabic dictionary and copy of the alphabet can make up a basic tool kit for translating inscriptions. Most of the material on Islamic art and architecture has been written or translated into English, French and German, much of which can be located in libraries at Oxford (the Bodleian and the Sackler library), Cambridge (University Library), SOAS, and the V&A (National Art Library). Hillenbrand also underlined the importance of primary material and encountering architectural spaces and practices first hand, suggesting Cairo and Damascus (rich in early Islamic architecture), Turkey and Iran (where non-Muslims are allowed into mosques).

Hillenbrand suggested a number of possible approaches to structuring courses on Islamic Art & Architecture:

  • by chronological survey (though he advised against this, since the subject is so vast)
  • by dynasty or region, e.g. Iran in the 12th Century
  • by key masterpieces, e.g. 12 objects over a 12 week course that might encompass a city / building / manuscript / ceramic (see Blair and Bloom books)
  • by medium, e.g. architecture, glass, ceramics, ivory
  • by iconography, e.g. representations of the monarchy / palaces / mosques / architectures of death
  • by museum displays and collections

The following core books were recommended for any student or teacher embarking on the subject:

  • Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, 1973
  • S. Blair and J. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250- 1800, 1994
  • S. Blair and J. Bloom, Islamic Arts, 1997
  • Robert Irwin, Islamic Art, 1997
  • Barbara Brend, Islamic Art, 1991
  • R. Ettinghausen and O. Grabar, Islamic Art and Architecture 650-1250, 1987
photograph of Professor Robert Hillenbrand taking a mock seminar at the Teaching Islamic Art workshop on 9 May 2003

Both morning and afternoon incorporated sessions in the V&A galleries, discussing specific objects, and the politics of collection and display. After lunch, Hillenbrand exemplified the value of object analysis as a method of teaching and learning, taking two mock seminars. In both tutorials, Hillenbrand indicated the small but significant ways in which a tutor can foster student participation and boost their confidence, such as noting down their ideas on paper as they talk. Moreover, he demonstrated that by beginning with the analysis of an object it is possible to get a foothold on an unfamiliar subject, which can be strengthened and pursued through the multiple lines of enquiry that open up from such an analysis.

A full bibliography of recommended reading will be available on the GLAADH website soon.


"Excellent day. Food for thought on teaching methods. Generally inspiring for actually doing something about introducing Islamic art into teaching." John Mitchell, University of East Anglia

"Excellent, very practical and full of constructive suggestions for topics and approaches to teaching the subject. Professor Hillenbrand was really supportive and empowering and I am looking forward to working up material for teaching." Rowan Roenisch, De Montfort University

"I found the Islamic art workshop very helpful and inspirational. Robert Hillenbrand's depth of knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious. I found the advice on course design helpful, and indeed the participation in small-group tutorials with museum objects as a model for teaching. Excellent." Crispin Branfoot, De Montfort University

"The workshop was strangely charged. There was a shared sense that the teaching of Islamic art in universities has been indefensibly neglected. The value of the workshop for me lay in the encouragement Prof. Hillenbrand gave, to those of us who as yet know little about Islamic art, to get on with the job of introducing students to it. The advice as to how to go about doing this was straightforward and practical." Paul Shakeshaft, Anglia Polytechnic University

"I found the group a good size to get interaction among the participants, and Robert Hillenbrand was an excellent guide for the day. It was both enjoyable and stimulating to be back in a tutorial situation. I found that my faith in my own existing teaching practice was reinforced, while new areas of the field were opened up to me." Mark Leahy, Middlesex University

"I greatly enjoyed the day and the chance to meet Robert Hillenbrand again. Aspects of the day were very useful, esp. Hillenbrand's morning session in which he challenged the place of Islamic art in perceptions of art history as a way of opening up the subject; the gallery trips were also good... The afternoon, in which H recreated seminars, while v. interesting to see his way of teaching... would have been useful to have had more on problems of bibliographies/visual materials and issues that are dealt with by contemporary teachers. For example, the session on Persian painting implied a need to have good understanding of Arabic - I would like to have been shown a range of MSS and told what kind of supporting materials were available to study them and what work had been done on them (or not as the case may be)." Anthony Eastmond, University of Warwick

"I thought the day a huge success. I found it very stimulating, as did my colleague Sue Malvern. The workshop certainly encouraged us to push ahead with our plans to set up a second year course on aspects of Islamic art in the Mediterranean." Paul Davies, University of Reading

"I thought Robert Hillenbrand's presentation was splendid and dealt with many of the concerns that I had had about taking on a teaching area that is at present well outside my immediate area of expertise. The seminars he put on were also very exciting as were the gallery visits." Sue Malvern, University of Reading

The GLAADH team would like to thank Francis Pugh and the V&A Museum for hosting and supporting this event.

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