As anyone who has ever worked on exhibitions well knows, it can be a lengthy and sometimes complicated process. There is often a long lead-in time, from when the exhibition concept is first proposed to when it finally opens to the public, and there are invariably challenges that arise in one way or another. In the case of Epic Iran, it has had an incubation period of almost nine years and there have definitely been a number of bumps along the way.
It starts with an idea
Ever since John Curtis, Academic Director, joined the IHF at the beginning of 2014 he had it in mind to organise an impressive exhibition about Iran. The aim was to put together an extensive display, bringing together ancient, Islamic and contemporary materials to demonstrate the long and rich history of Iranian culture.
The Trustees of the IHF were enthusiastic about this proposal, and took the view that in line with IHF’s reputation as one of the UK’s foremost organisations promoting Iranian culture, putting on a major exhibition about Iranian cultural heritage would be a highly desirable objective. The next step was identifying a suitable venue, but by the end of 2015 little progress had been made.
Collaboration is key
At the same time, in early 2016, Martin Roth, the then Director of the V&A, agreed to mount an exhibition in the V&A of choice pieces from the Sarikhani Collection, which spanned Iranian art from prehistory to the present. John Curtis was invited to curate the ancient part of the exhibition, while the V&A’s Tim Stanley would curate the Islamic part of the exhibition and Ina Sarikhani Sandmann would curate the contemporary part. When Tristram Hunt became the Director of the V&A, however, he had the vision to decide in early 2018 that the exhibition should be expanded to include not only objects from the Sarikhani Collection but material from the V&A’s own collection and objects from other museums and collections both in the UK and abroad, including Iran. The original curatorial team was retained, but now with the addition of Astrid Johansen from the IHF, Fuchsia Hart (in due course replaced by Alexandra Magub) as the Exhibition Research Assistant, and Sarah Piram, the IHF Curator for the Iranian Collections at the V&A.
A major intention of the exhibition was to borrow a considerable number of objects from Iranian collections and showcase these to the UK public, many of whom would otherwise never have the opportunity to see them in person. In order to put together a meaningful and rich list of pieces, as well as to engage with Iranian counterparts, some of the curatorial team travelled to Tehran in April 2019 to meet with colleagues and explore what possible loans could be arranged. This research trip proved fruitful and provided the team with lots of inspiration for the object list, as well as a redoubled enthusiasm to present Iran’s vast cultural heritage to a wider audience. The discussions about loans developed further over the following months and, as is commonplace for any agreement with Iran, a reciprocal loan was recommended to be sent to Tehran, which would enable visitors there to see some of the V&A’s masterpieces. Considerations for a reciprocal loan were put forward by the museum and in November that year IHF had the opportunity to meet again with colleagues from Iran at the Tappeh Sialk conference in Paris (the third in a series of seminars organised by the IHF) to take negotiations forward and finalise the loan lists.
The best-laid plans…
By the end of 2019, it looked as though the Iranian loans were all set to be included in the show, however, it wasn’t to be such a smooth process after all. The worsening political environment and associated sanctions proved more challenging than anticipated, and with US-Iran relations at a new low at the start of 2020, it became clear that it would not be possible either to send an exhibition to Iran or to receive one from there. With the intensifying spread of Covid-19 it would not have been possible in any case. It was a great blow to the whole exhibition team, not only in terms of hampering what would have been an important cultural exchange, but moreover there was disappointment that it would no longer be possible to present these wonderful objects from Iranian collections to the public.
We are extremely grateful to the institutions who at that point came to our rescue, allowing us to borrow additional objects at the last minute to make up for the loss of the Iranian loans, especially in the pre-Islamic sections. This includes the Ashmolean and The Sarikhani Collection, and in particular the Metropolitan Museum, who made a great effort to prepare their objects for transfer to London amidst the pandemic.
Some of the objects lent by the Metropolitan (17.190.106; 62.84; 51.72.1) © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Then, just as things were looking more positive on the exhibition front, the severity of the pandemic became clearer. The first UK lockdown in March 2020 put the whole schedule into jeopardy, forcing the exhibition team to coordinate plans remotely without knowing when, or whether, the show might in fact be able to open. Over the course of the next 12 months there continued to be moments of anxiety, with the opening date changing no less than three times and loan agreements needed to be extended to cover the new dates. Travel restrictions were still in place during the installation period which necessitated virtual-couriering, a first for the V&A and the lenders. Most unfortunately, though, this approach was not possible with the Louvre or the Hermitage’s objects, so these loans sadly fell through as a result. Despite all this, the exhibition finally opened its doors on 29th May 2021, some 8 months later than originally planned, to an overwhelming amount of support and interest from the public and critics alike.
Images from inside Epic Iran © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This too shall pass
Epic Iran’s journey has been rather a long and at-times bumpy one, and the uncertainty of how the last year would affect the show was very apparent to all involved. IHF feels very fortunate that the V&A’s Director, Tristram Hunt, preserved with putting on the exhibition at a later date, and although the Covid-19 continues to cause issues, with limitations on the number of tickets available and travel restrictions meaning many who had planned to come to London may not be able to do so, the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude. The team has ultimately delivered a fully-formed and comprehensive exhibition that not only the IHF, V&A and The Sarikhani Collection are pleased with, but most importantly one that visitors have truly engaged with. We hope that Epic Iran will ignite an interest in Iranian culture and heritage for a whole new audience.
The final object in the exhibition: This Will Also Pass by Hossein Valamanesh (2013)