Arts & Culture

Islamic studies course taps Minassian Collection resources

Contributing Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2012

This semester, students in HIAA 1410C: “What Is Islamic Art?” are using the University’s Minassian Collection to explore questions surrounding the history, limitations and contemporary status of Islamic art.

The collection comprises primarily manuscripts and ceramics, Ian Straughn, Joukowsky family librarian for Middle Eastern studies, wrote in an email to The Herald. Items included in the collection came to the University in 1994 at the request of Adrienne Minassian, a second-generation dealer in Islamic art and artifacts, said University Curator and Senior Lecturer in American Civilization Robert Emlen. Minassian was the daughter of Kirkor Minassian, a prominent art dealer and collector. 

Adrienne Minassian was a friend of Marilyn Jenkins-Madina ’62, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who wanted “to leave her collection where it would have the most use,” Emlen said. While portions of her collection were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard’s Sackler Museum, the majority of its contents were acquired by the University, Emlen said. “I think (she) was very keen that we establish a program here for the study of Islamic culture and Islamic art,” he added.

The University is still working to fulfill Minassian’s wishes, Emlen said. Efforts are underway to auction off pieces not included in the University’s official Minassian Collection so profits can go toward funding a new position for instruction in Islamic studies, he said.

Aly Abouzeid ’14, who is in the class, said he would like to see the Middle East studies program expanded. He cited current tensions between the United States and the Middle East as a key reason to further this academic area. “It’s important to understand these days how rich culture really is … instead of just judging it based on media or global perceptions,” Abouzeid said. 

The exact value of the collection remains unknown, and an official assessment of its contents has probably never been conducted, but Straughn wrote he would estimate their value to be more than $50,000. Emlen said values of the items will not actually be determined until the pieces go to auction.

“The main value of the Minassian Collection is as a teaching resource,” wrote Shiva Balaghi, postdoctoral fellow at the Cogut Center for the Humanities and the course’s instructor, in an email to The Herald. Many of the Minassian pieces possess considerable worth as instructive materials, Emlen said. For example, a broken vase can be far more valuable than something that is intact, he said. 

This notion of capitalizing on the Minassian Collection’s educational resources was exactly Balaghi’s thinking when she designed her seminar course, she wrote. 

The three-part course – including an overview of Islamic art, workshops featuring the Minassian Collection and an examination of contemporary Islamic art – is composed of students from a wide array of concentrations, said Leila Meglio ’12, an English concentrator.

The course offers “a very different perspective into a very rich culture,” Abouzeid said. “You really start to challenge the perceptions of the Arab region itself … and start to figure out how an entire civilization was built up through art,” he added. The class examines the Islamic culture in its entirety, including its art, literature and politics – all of which are interwoven in ways they are not in Western culture, Abouzeid said.  

The course’s workshops offer students the opportunity to handle items from the Minassian Collection and then present them to the class, Meglio said. Interacting with the collection “brings an added level of interest and engagement,” she added.

“It just changed the dynamics of the course entirely,” Balaghi wrote.

Rhode Island Hall has a case featuring several Minassian ceramics, but the whole collection can be found online, Straughn wrote.

Alanna Benham ’99 began digitizing the collection as part of her thesis, according to the University’s Library Center for Digital Scholarship website. Since then, the John Hay Library has made a significant effort to make over 1,500 manuscripts available to students, scholars and the public online, Emlen said.

Balaghi wrote that she plans to teach her course again next spring. “It provides a unique opportunity to offer a course in the humanities that integrates teaching and research in the classroom.”

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