By Rajaa Khalife
It’s getting colder in London, but it only takes a shy appearance of the sun and a Saturday to venture outside and fill the streets of South Kensington on this first day of November. On the way to the Science Museum, the recently installed ice-skating rink was already heavily marked with happy laughter and hesitant young beginners.
Taking a closer look at what was happening around, families, couples or random wanderers weren’t the only ones to enjoy the light of day. After 60, 70 or even 80 years sitting on a shelf in some homes or attics, many historical objects were finally taken out to be admired and studied. The Nour Festival has offered a rare opportunity to see some of the hidden objects from the Science Museum archives and a contemporary look at material culture from the Middle East and North Africa.
Each and every object of this collection, both from the past and present, carries a story of art, science or technology, reflective of a community’s identity, traditions and culture. Stories are now brought to life through these objects, which have shaped and influenced modern society and culture. As opposed to all the treasures held behind immaculate glass boxes in museums, it feels so nice to be able to see an important object so closely, touch it, experience the feel of the material, texture and the engraved inscriptions and ornaments. It is incredible to imagine how many houses in the Levant own similar objects, knowing the function they hold but no longer finding them useful or precious. Maybe useful nowadays as an insignificant vase, a candy bowl or simply a dusty thing left from older generations, kept in the storage room and waiting to be rid of or sold at the flea market at a ridiculous price.
Many of these objects belong to the Wellcome Collection. Henry Wellcome was a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and most of all a collector. Around the end of the 19th century, he established world-class medical research laboratories and collected a large scope of medical and culture related artifacts from all over the world. His team of about 20 people went around the globe, empowered with unlimited wealth serving the unique purpose of purchasing items for the collection. This collection will be further unveiled in 2018 when the Science Museum will open its new medical gallery. It is said that the collection is so wide that the whole area of the exhibition might not constitute 10% of it.
Many families are familiar with these specific old pre-Islamic or Islamic objects from a wide spectrum, but very local to some regions and might remind them of objects their grandparents had or items they do own and still use today. One visitor identified a local item still used in Morocco during pregnancy, as a divination to hopefully predict or tell the type of future the child will have.
For instance this metal bowl with pouring spout can be medicinal; its business-like aspect denotes another function outside of just pouring.
This brass divination bowl with engraved signs of the Zodiac is from Persia, between 1751 and 1900. The fringes have inscriptions on the back. At the birth of a child, the bowl is filled with water which would make the fringes pop up.
The striking blue glass jar is similar to the cupping therapy glasses of alternative medicine still practiced in the Far East. A flame placed quickly underneath takes all the oxygen out and when pressed down on the body, the skin is gently drawn upwards by creating a vacuum in the cup over the target area of the skin, usually applied for five to fifteen minutes. It is believed by some to help treat pain, deep scar tissues in the muscles and connective tissue, muscle knots, and swelling.
The little numbers seen on it and on other artifacts in museums represent the date (1940) in which the object was acquired for a collection. The number preceding it (1728) means that this was the 1728th object acquired in that year. During that period of time the war was happening and sadly many other collections must have probably been broken up or destroyed. In addition to dates, many objects also have descriptions, location and symbols on them, waiting to be deciphered with the help of an archaeologist or an anthropologist.
This gorgeous pierced brass incense burner comes with a cup supported in gimbal. Dating from the 18th or 19th century, it is claimed to be from India, even though it could be from Persia as well. Holy water is placed inside it and the burner is screwed back on then shaken, leaving drops in the air, purifying or blessing the place and the people. This usage is similar to other brass or golden incensors used in churches, held with thin long chains allowing the priest to oscillate the object, spreading smoke towards the altar for what is said to be a sort of purification and sanctification or other significations depending on the usage and time of usage during Mass. It is well known that the use of incense in the ancient world was common, mostly in religious or liturgical rites where it was used from various purposes from keeping demons away to honoring the body of a deceased.
This amazing brass Arabic planispheric astrolabe – dated 1014 AH (1605-06 AD) – comes with six plates and a shadow dial on the reverse by Mustafa Ayyub. Each one of the plates has a different chart referring to a different time and night sky of the year, used to indicate when to plant crops or when harvest is due.
Many of these artifacts are incredibly mathematical and portray that what was happening in the Middle East and the Islamic world at that time was so in advance of what was happening in other parts of the World, especially places like Europe where all learning during the Dark Ages stopped altogether and all the knowledge was somehow centered.
The collection is very diverse, the objects themselves are fascinating and their usage is surprising. These artifacts displayed at the Science Museum and relating to North Africa entice us to research more and dig deeper for sciences originating from the Golden Age of Islam and other ancient cultures, showing how science – even though diverging from different corners of the world – is today accessible to everyone.
Rajaa Khalife is a Lebanese artist, award winning creative/art director and visual consultant based in London. She studied a Master of Arts, route European Art Practice at Kingston University London and a Masters in Advertising at USEK Lebanon. @followolf http://warwithwolf.wordpress.com/