The number of objects dazzles. The display overwhelms. The Gemeente Museum’s exhibition on Islamic art, “Splendour and Bliss”, dazzles and bewilders.

The official opening took place a few days before my friend and I visited this exhibition. Yet the booklet available in this exhibition, was already tatty and contained loose pages. This booklet, available in English and Dutch, is absolutely necessary.

It contains a floor plan, as well as thumbnail photos of all objects. Sometimes, it also has explanatory texts, which are helpful for visitors not familiar with objects and art forms. However, often, there are just the bare facts: a period or date, material, country.

Nevertheless, using this booklet is strongly recommended. Apart from the exhibition texts and some additional information, there is the floor plan. It looks as if this exhibition sprawls across five or more rooms?

This exhibition is arranged according to themes and some share exhibition space. This caused visitors including us, to end up searching for rooms we might have missed. Only to end up in say, the museum’s permanent exhibition on Delft ware.

As for the themes, these include for example “geometry”, “calligraphy”, “plants and animals”. Within the themes, objects are not displayed in any chronological, regional, material or other order.

This ensures a visit is a somewhat chaotic experience. For there are over 300 objects. Most of these seem to have been collected from 1800 onwards, though there are exceptions. Take the wonderful scroll which turns out to be a contract or permit, allowing the Dutch to trade within the Ottoman Empire.

The objects date from anywhere between the 7th to early 20th century. They also originate from various places within the sprawling Islamic empire, which as the museum mentions: “… at its height, [it] extended from Spain to China.” Yet not all countries and regions are represented.

Nevertheless, the splendour impresses. The focus is on craftmanship. Visitors find beautiful manuscripts and books, objects made of bronze and other metals, pottery, lamps and examples of painted glass, tiles, rugs, instruments ranging from astronomical to musical ones, even complete doors!

With so much on show, covering an extensive period and many countries; what I missed was order. After the first room and two themes, I simply gave up.

The chaos was too overwhelming. Simple solution: whenever something impressed, I used the booklet to look it up, hoping to find a text, more information, an explanation,

My friend gave up well before me. Like other visitors, he accidentally ended up at the permanent Delftware exhibition, presuming there were more rooms full of Islamic art. He headed for the museum’s café, while I continued wandering through “Splendour and Bliss”.

Our verdict: this exhibition is interesting, but falls way short of the one on Turkey and Istanbul at Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk, winter 2006-2007. At the The Hague Gemeente Museum, the splendour is impressive – a visit no sheer bliss.


“Splendour and Bliss” welcomes visitors until 3 March 2019, see website for details.

Photo: Gemeentemuseum Den Haag