Dr. Massumeh Farhad Interview

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Gavin Moulton
Director, External Affairs


Dr. Massumeh Farhad is Chief Curator and Curator of Islamic Art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. Her expertise is in Iranian manuscripts from the 17th century. After earning her PhD in art history at Harvard University in 1987 she joined the Smithsonian as an associate curator. Farhad has curated numerous exhibitions including Art of the Persian Courts, Fountains of Light: The Nuhad Es-Said Collection of Metalwork, and Roads of Arabia: History and Archaeology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She has written extensively on seventeenth-century Persian painting, co-authored Slaves of the Shah: New Elites in Safavid Iran (2004) and Falnama: The Book of Omens (2009), and is a frequent contributor to the Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Could you tell us about your journey studying Islamic art? How did you become interested in museum work and art history?

I grew up in Iran surrounded by wonderful architectural monuments, which intrigued me from an early age. I wondered why they looked the way they did, how they were built, who lived in them, and what they can tell us about the past. When I came to the United States as an undergraduate, I wanted to learn more about art and architecture. Whether studying Gothic churches, nineteenth-century photography, or Chinese painting, I saw these works as a way to learn about both the past and the present.  

After getting my BA, I interned at the Guggenheim Museum for 6 months and decided that I wanted to continue studying art history, especially art of the Islamic world, and work in a museum.

What is the most rewarding aspect of leading the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art?

As curator of the arts of the Islamic world and head of the curatorial department, I have loved working with one of the finest collections of Asian Art in the world. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to learn something new every day and also be able to share the works with our diverse audiences, both physically in the museum as well as online.

In 2016, you curated Arts of the Qur’an, the first major exhibition to focus on the central text of Islam in the United States. What did it mean to present these masterworks from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts to an American audience? Can appreciation of Islamic art serve as a pathway to a greater cultural understanding?

Arts of the Qur’an, which I co-curated with Dr. Simon Rettig, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It took some eight years to complete the project but it was worth every minute. I felt tremendously fortunate to be able to collaborate with colleagues at the Museum of Islamic and Turkish Art and have their support to share some of the most spectacular copies of the Qur’an with audiences, who otherwise would never have the chance to see these treasures. Once the exhibition opened, it was a joy to see visitors from different religious and ethnic backgrounds come together and share observations and insights. I hope that the Arts of the Qur’an and other exhibitions on the Islamic world allow a more nuanced understanding of the incredibly rich and diverse cultures and traditions of the region.

The National Museum of Asian Art collaborates with museums across the globe to advance scholarship and produce exhibitions. What role do museums play in promoting international cooperation?

Museums have always collaborated and cooperated around the world for exhibitions, conferences, and scholarly exchanges. These activities have now accelerated, thanks to digital possibilities. You can sit on different continents and participate in the same symposium, show objects side-by-side in digital exhibitions, or have virtual fellows. Of course, the personal interaction and cooperation cements these relationships.  

On view now is Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. Could you tell us about the special role of textiles in Safavid culture and what objects visitors might expect to see on view?

Seventeenth-century textiles created in Iran under the rule of Shah Abbas (1589-1629) and his descendants stand out for their intricate designs, vibrant colors, and technical complexity. They also became the backbone of the Safavid economy and were exported by land and by sea to both Europe and South Asia, generating tremendous wealth for the empire. The active trade also positioned Iran at the nexus of a vibrant global exchange and introduced new cultural norms as well as artistic styles and techniques to Iran. In addition to some extraordinary silks and velvets, the exhibition includes fine manuscript illustrations and full length oil paintings to contextualize the use of textiles in the Safavid period.

 You’ve curated Islamic material culture from metalwork to manuscripts. Is there an artwork in the Smithsonian collections that is particularly meaningful?

It is extremely difficult to single out one meaningful work in the collection. There are exceptional manuscripts, such as the mid-16th century Haft awrang of Jami from Iran (F1946.12); ceramics, such as the 10th-century bowl from present-day Uzbekistan (F1957.24) or the celebrated “Freer” canteen from the mid-13th century, attributed to Iraq (F1941.10).

What is in store for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art?

We are celebrating our museum’s centennial in 2023 with a range of exciting exhibitions, public programs, and special events. I hope that as many people as possible, whether physically or virtually, will join the celebrations.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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