Islamic art museum set to open in downtown

Center will also house a mosque and a library

July 22, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A new museum of Islamic art and culture will open in December in downtown Baltimore as part of an effort by Maryland Muslims to promote greater understanding of their religion in the aftermath of attacks such as this month's bombing of the London subway.

Plans for the museum, to be called the American Museum of Islamic Arts, will be announced during a launch today of a new Islamic community center inside a former bank building at 240 N. Howard St. Mayor Martin O'Malley is expected to be on hand for the 1:45 p.m. ceremony.

The center will serve as a mosque for Muslims who live or work downtown, as well as house the museum and a library where the public can learn more about the Islamic faith.

"We want to build a positive image of Islam and Muslims," said Ghazal Chughtai, the center's executive director. "It's clear we still have a lot of work to do."

The mosque is on the Islamic center's ground floor and the museum and library will occupy the two upper stories. Eventually, the center will also open a free health-care clinic and a shelter for battered women, Chughtai said.

The building, located at the corner of Howard and Saratoga streets, was built in 1904 as the Provident Savings Bank. Its present owner, Ahmed Adam, bought the property about 10 years ago and is leasing it over the next two years to the mosque and community center for $1 a month.

Ronald Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance, a nonprofit group that works to foster redevelopment in the neighborhood, said a museum of Islamic art and culture could fit in well with long-term efforts to revive the area.

"Museums and other attractions are an integral part of the Westside plan," Kreitner said. "If it makes good use of a building, it would be a welcome addition."

Most of the new museum's collection will be donated by private citizens or loaned from other institutions, said Shahab Qarni of the Maryland Muslim Council, which co-sponsored the center with the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Baltimore's Muslim population numbers more than 10,000, according to 2000 census figures.

"We're doing this in downtown because it's close to the convention center and it's a tourist attraction," Qarni said.

He added that the museum, which has been promised 2,000 pieces by a private collector, will have 9,000 square feet of exhibition space and a staff of three. Eventually its holdings are expected to include examples of traditional and contemporary artworks from Muslim communities around the world.

"Islam is one religion, but each culture is different," Chughtai said. "We are working with everyone to get artworks, including the Baltimore Jewish community. We have Egyptians, Moroccans, Pakistanis and many others, and we will exhibit works from all these cultures in the museum."

Currently, Baltimore's largest collection of Islamic art is at the Walters Art Museum, which owns excellent examples of Islamic manuscripts, calligraphy, ceramics, glass, jewelry and textiles, said Walters curator Regine Schulz.

Schulz welcomed the new museum as a counter to the negative stereotypes of Muslims that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the recent bombings in London.

"Islamic art and culture help us understand that Muslims have a very special interest and feeling for spiritual beauty," Schulz said. "If you are a good Muslim, you're interested in the beautiful expression of the religion - in its calligraphy or architecture, for example."

Terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon that runs counter to the tenets of every religion, including Islam, Schulz said.

"Islamic art never depicts the ugly, disrespectful or evil," she added. "That would be against their idea that art should show the beauty of the religion."

Sun staff writer Jill Rosen contributed to this article.

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