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Manuscript and Philology as Curatorial Practice in the “Memoria de los Moriscos”
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In the wake of post 9–11 Islamophobia and violence caused by xenophobic groups, the museum has been framed as a place by which to promote understanding of Islamic cultures.1 The Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal donated $20 million to the Louvre in 2005 for the construction of a wing for the museum’s collection of Islamic Art that would “assist in the understanding of the true meaning of Islam, a religion of humanity, forgiveness and acceptance of other cultures” (Tagliabue). In November of 2011, the MET opened its new galleries to display its collection of artifacts from the Arab world, “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia”. The Islamic galleries had been closed for renovation since 2003, a time that the New York Times describes as just the moment “when we needed to learn everything we could about Islamic culture” (Cotter). In Spain, the Fundación tres culturas del Mediterráneo launched the 2003 exhibit “Mudejarismo: las tres culturas en la creación de la identidad española”, in which manuscripts and other objects associated with the Mudéjar period were exhibited with the mission that they might unearth medieval models of coexistence that could be used to respond to current challenges with the Arab world.2

Other exhibits have avoided such explicit links between the exhibit and current European-Arab or United States-Arab relations to focus primarily on the esthetic appeal of the objects exhibited and the appreciation for the material book evidenced in their workmanship. Some of these exhibits have featured manuscripts and other rare books produced among Muslims. In Spain, while some exhibits have presented the manuscripts as having evidentiary value for scholars working on Islamic cultures, oftentimes the foci are the beauty of the books and their value as cultural heritage. Such exhibits include those coordinated by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) in combination with other cultural and academic organizations, including one to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Escuela de Estudios Árabes, as well as other exhibits organized by the Fundación de Cultura Islámica (FUNCI).3 One of FUNCI’S recent exhibits, “Qalam, l’Art du Livre” (National Library of Morocco, Rabat), stressed the centrality of the written word and calligraphy in Islamic cultures, as well as what the exhibit viewed as the universal values involved in the book-making tradition.4 A central focus of a 2010 exhibit of twenty-three Arabic, Hebrew, and Armenian manuscripts or leaves from the Fundación Lázaro Galdiano (“Las artes del libro oriental”), curated by María Jesús Viguera Molins, was the beauty of the manuscripts and the manuscripts’ uncanny ability to involve viewers in an emotional exchange: “su facultad para transmitir emociones y su armonía excitan la imaginación y son un deleite para la vista” (“Las artes del libro oriental”).

This essay examines how a single exhibit centered on manuscripts associated with a specific Iberian Muslim population, the Moriscos, approached the physical manuscripts and the texts they contain. In the summer of 2010, the Biblioteca Nacional de España and a subsidiary of the CSIC, the Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales (SECC), launched a three-month exhibit entitled “Memoria de los Moriscos: Escritos y relatos de una diáspora cultural” to remember the expulsion of the Moriscos ordered by Philip III in 1609 and lasting until 1614. The physical exhibit displayed some sixty-five manuscripts with text written primarily in Arabic and Aljamiado (regional dialects of Spanish copied out in Arabic script). In addition, the exhibit displayed several prints depicting conversions of the Moriscos of Granada and views of regions to which the Moriscos fled post-expulsion, including the Berber Coast and Tunis. While the majority of the manuscripts displayed were from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the exhibit included Mudéjar material and manuscripts produced in the Mudéjar period, or prior to the forced conversion of Spanish Muslims to Christianity. The exhibit included an extensive exhibit catalog, totaling over three-hundred pages, with introductory letters written by cultural officials, articles on topics of importance to Aljamiado studies, descriptions and images of each exhibited...

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