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A tale of two Islamic Art and Material Culture fellows

Submitted on Monday, January 04, 2021

By Suzanne Bowness

Samantha Summers is examining a thirteenth-century Syrian metalwork canteen from Mosul, Iraq. With its beautiful etchings, the canteen, which is housed at the Smithsonian museum, was created by a Muslim artist but depicts important Christian stories from the annunciation to the nativity.

It also raises some unanswerable questions, including why a Muslim artist would have been referencing Christian themes, specifically, as Summers puts it, why would a patron have commissioned the distinct figures of a Christian Crusader Knight to be depicted beside a Muslim Knight?

ancient Iraqi canteen

Click through to see close-ups of the canteen in question

“I can’t imagine placing this order, I mean, I can’t imagine, because I’m not a patron of the Arts in medieval Mosul, but I can’t imagine placing an order saying ‘I want all of these features from the gospel and horsemen and warriors, but on top of it, I want these two figures, which are, by their very nature in complete conflict,’” says Summers, who’s currently enrolled in the Faculty of Information’s Combined Degree Program and has been studying history for years.

Summers and fellow Master of Museum Studies student, Rebecca Tunney, are the inaugural recipients of the Fellows Program in Islamic Art and Material Culture, created as a joint project by the University of Toronto’s Institute of Islamic Studies along with the Aga Khan Museum and Royal Ontario Museum.

The project is the brainchild of Anver Emon, UofT history professor and Canada Research Chair in Religion, Pluralism and the Rule of Law; Ruba Kana’an, UTM Islamic Art and Architecture professor; Heba Mostafa, UofT Islamic Art and Architecture professor; Fahmida Suleman, curator of Islamic Art and Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum; and Ulrike Al-Khamis, director of Collections and Public Programs at the Aga Khan Museum. Run collaboratively through the Islamic Art and Material Culture Collaborative, the program offers both junior fellowships to fourth-year undergraduates for course credit, and eight-month senior fellowships with a stipend to graduate students.

While the pandemic has meant that the junior fellowship program has been postponed for the year because students cannot attend the museums in person, Emon says he’s pleased that the senior fellows were able to continue projects working from home. “We’re really excited we can launch it, especially during COVID,” he said. “We knew we could design the senior fellowship programs to be much more research intensive so the students wouldn’t need to go to museums,” he explained. The team plans to help their fellows integrate with the community by incorporating them into a regular workshop series and, in future, with in-person lunches.

Samantha Summers

Samantha Summers completed a Master’s degree in history before entering the Faculty of Information’s Combined Degree Program where she will earn degrees in both Information and Museum Studies.

Working with professor Ruba Kana’an, Summers has spent the first stage of her fellowship cataloguing the work of these medieval Muslim artists. At the midpoint, she’s looking into image rights for the artifacts, a learning experience in itself. Moving forward, she will help Kana’an turn the research into a paper as well as assist on a grant proposal for further research.

“Mosul metalwork has been largely overlooked by the academic community, especially these Christian themes and what they mean,” says Summers. “Dr. Kana’an is taking what very little exists out there and trying to synthesize all of these pieces to come up with a good solid theory as to how these came to exist.”

Alongside her work as a fellow, Summers has also been taking classes online, and writing her thesis on the practice in museums and galleries of divesting from an individual major donor who has come to be seen as too problematic. Summers has also been inspired by the project to contemplate further research on power and gender in the Muslim world.

Before coming to the Faculty of Information, where she is earning Master’s degrees in both Information and Museum Studies, she completed another Master’s degree in history at Queen’s University where she researched the Crusades, specifically the relationship between gender and power in the rulers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in in the late 12th century. She did her undergraduate degree also at UofT in Celtic Studies. For her Master of Information degree, she chose both the Library and Information Science and Archives and Records Management concentrations.

As well as studying objects, she also works with them herself: as a bookbinder at the Kelly Library at St Michael’s College at UofT and also apprenticed to a bookbinder in Kingston.

A second fellow with a different calling

To meet Rebecca Tunney, the second fellow in the program is to realize the wide range of research made possible by this new fellowship.

Rebecca Tunney

Rebecca Tunney, shown outside the Aga Khan Museum, says the Islamic Art fellowship “feels like a natural extension of all the past work that I’ve done.”

Supervised by Ulrike Al-Khamis at the Aga Khan museum, Tunney’s project focuses on designing a video game to help young museum visitors explore the museum digitally. The game will focus on themes of interconnectedness and identity, and have young people create their own work in response to what they’ve learned.

Currently, Tunney is connecting with personnel in all departments of the museum to gather insights on ways to bring the collection into her game. At the end of her project, she will leave behind a blueprint for a game to be created by developers. Tunney says the project is an extension of everything she knows. “I‘ve grown up playing video games and board games and trivia. I’ve been interested in games my whole life—gamifying in education is something I’ve always been interested in so, I’m excited about this work,” she says.

While completing her Bachelor of Science degree in Science Anthropology – with minors in Arts Anthropology and Classical Civilizations – Tunney worked for the UTM library and as a program assistant to the Facilitated Study program at the campus. In the latter role, she was part of a team of program assistants who coordinated and trained facilitators. She was also a facilitator herself and used gaming to solidify learning in her training sessions.

Now Tunney says she’s excited to be combining all her past experiences in her current project and also to imagine how her work will be enjoyed by future museum visitors. “The fellowship feels like a natural extension of all the past work that I’ve done. I never imagined I would be able to do something like this—to take my interest in games and use them in an educational capacity,” she says. “It’s so exciting combine two things I like and also turn them into something that’s going to become real.”