V&A to defy Iran sanctions with exhibition

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The Victoria & Albert Museum is to mount a major exhibition  about Iran’s art and design, in the face of a growing crisis between Britain, the US and Iran.

The exhibition, Epic Iran, looking at 5,000 years of arts and design through 300 objects, will be the first major British exhibition on Iran’s culture since a Royal Academy exhibition 1931, and is the subject of discreet negotiations with Iranian politicians, the V&A’s director Tristram Hunt said today. He said he hoped it would include loans from Iran.

“At the moment when tensions between East and West seem only to be escalating this exhibition will serve a vital and important purpose in enabling audiences in Britain to learn more about the arts, design and culture in one of the world’s greatest historical civilisations” he said. The exhibition is curated by Tim Stanley of the V&A's Asia department.

 Pictured is a detached folio from an illuminated 16thcentury manuscript of the Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp from The Sarikhani Collection in Oxford

The museum had had close discussions with the Iranian embassy, he said, and was working with Tehran’s museums. He is hoping for loans from Iran. “But it’s not easy” he said. “In terms of cultural relations and interests on each side the curators work together as professionals, but the landscape is not easy. Every week it becomes more challenging, and that means every week it’s more important to do.

“We are working with governments in Iran but with Russia and Paris and the UK, and it seems to me more valuable as sanctions and the militaristic language escalate that we think about the narratives and understandings of that culture.”

The V&A is also negotiating with the government of Ethiopia for the return on loan of objects which had been looted by the British during the siege of Maqdala in 1868 during the Abyssinia campaign of Sir Robert Napier. The objects, including a golden crown and chalice, were assigned to the museum and have been on almost constant display there since 1872. 

Hunt said the Ethiopian culture minister had visited recently and a memorandum of understanding had been drafted, with V&A curators expected to visit the capital Addis Ababa to see where and how the objects could be displayed. “Quite understandably” he said “they have a scepticism and distaste towards having a loan from an organisation which they think plundered the items from them, so I completely understand their political stance. We’re trying to work out a system which respects our legal obligations, and hopefully we can work thought that and get the items on loan to them.”

Epic Iran will be at V&A from October 12, 2020, to April 4, 2021.

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