That Sheikh Nasser and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) would wind up having a special relationship was almost pre-ordained. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, founded 1870, The al-Sabah Collection, started in 1975, and the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah galleries in the Kuwait National Museum, opening in 1983, share the mission of bringing art and art education to the community.
All three entities have been successful in their efforts. The Met is visited by thousands of New Yorkers and visitors to New York every year. The al-Sabah Collection is seen by thousands of people at home in Kuwait and at leading institutions throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America, including the Met.
Even before the Kuwait National Museum opened, Nasser was working with The Met. In 1980, he gifted an 11th century Fatimid gold bead to The Met in honour of Richard Ettinghausen, consultative chairman of the Islamic Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That was followed, a year later, by The al-Sabah Collection’s first international loan to the Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks exhibition (11/21/1981-1/10/1982) at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The connection took a huge step forward when Nasser needed help preparing his private collection for exhibition at Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah in the Kuwait National Museum. Marilyn Jenkins-Madina, who is Curator Emerita, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and an assistant (Manuel Keene, who became The al-Sabah Collection’s first curator) came to Kuwait to help transform the objects collected into an exhibition.
So, even before the official “Day One,” there was a growing relationship between the two. Given that synergy, it is no real surprise that loans to The Met have continued for 40 years.
Since that first loan in 1981, objects from The al-Sabah Collection have been included in the following exhibitions:
However, the greatest demonstration of the institutions’ collaboration and the resulting impact occurred in 2001. An exquisite exhibition of jewelled Islamic art objects from The al-Sabah Collection was scheduled to open in mid-October. That, of course, was just over a month after the 9/11 tragedy.
Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts in the Age of the Mughals was scheduled to run for three months, 15 October 2001 – 12 January 2002, but the efficacy of that was being questioned.
Was this the right time to feature art from the Islamic world in New York City? Despite the concern, Michele Leight, writing in thecityreview.com review of the exhibition noted that Met director “Phillipe De Montebello explained that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had remained steadfast in its resolve to mount the show in the wake of September 11th, in the best interests of art and culture.”
In the end it proved to be a successful show for the Met, attracting a larger than expected audience eager to see the beautiful objects on display and, just as important, to garner a greater understanding of the people and culture of the region.
In 2010 Nasser was invited to join the Museum’s Board of Trustees. Ultimately though, his responsibilities at the Amiri Diwan made it impossible for him to be a contributing member of the board. His wife, Hussa, continued this special relationship with the Met, becoming an Honorary Trustee in 2014.
Later, in 2018, the relationship was again formalised. To ensure that The Met’s commitment to art education was supported and that The al-Sabah Collection’s focused interest in research and studies of art from the Islamic world continued, an endowment was established, creating the Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In a note acknowledging the gift, the Museum’s director Max Hollein confirmed that the position would be used to further “enrich our knowledge of Islamic culture.” Dr Navina Najat Haider, a world renowned scholar, became the first curator to hold that position.