Working in and with the Middle East & North Africa


The V&A holds over 19,000 historical items from the Middle East and adjacent lands in the Islamic period, the earliest dating from the eighth century AD; the world’s largest collection of European images of the region, covering watercolours, drawings and photographs; and work by modern and contemporary artists and designers from the Middle East. The geographical area covered by these collections stretches from Spain and Morocco in the west to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in the east, taking in important centres of production in the Arab lands, Turkey and Iran. The collections were formed from the 1850s onwards, and they have been in the care of the Middle Eastern section of the Asian Department since 2002. The Museum’s collection of European images of the Middle East is housed in the Word and Image Department.

The Museum has the world’s leading collections in the fields of ceramics and textiles from the Islamic Middle East, as well as significant holdings of metalwork, including arms, armour and jewellery; glass; woodwork; paintings in oils, the arts of the book and architectural drawings; and carvings in ivory and stone. The main display for these collections opened as the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in 2006. It shows approximately 400 items, including iconic pieces such as the Ardabil carpet (1540) and a superb rock crystal ewer made in Egypt in the eleventh century. Thousands more items can be seen in the Museum’s galleries devoted to materials and techniques, such as the Ceramics Galleries, opened in 2010–2011.

The V&A’s principal initiative in the field of contemporary art and design is the Jameel Prize, a biennial international award established in 2009. The Prize is open to practitioners of any background and recognises work inspired by Islamic tradition. Acquisitions in this field have been complemented, in particular, by growing holdings of contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish design, and of photography. The photography collection was developed with the support of the Art Fund and in co-operation with the British Museum.


At the V&A

  • Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection (21 November 2015 – 10 April 2016): The exhibition includes more than 100 objects drawn from a single private collection, the Al Thani Collection, and three additional major loans from the Royal Collection Trust. It explores the broad theme of jewelled objects made in India or inspired by the arts of India.
  • A Room from Damascus (April – December 2015): This temporary display in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art highlights the 18th century interior from a house in Damascus and its furnishings, acquired by the V&A in 1880. The conservation process of the Damascus room panels was captured in the following blog.
  • Jameel Prize 3 (December 2013 – April 2014): The latest edition of the Jameel Prize exhibition attracted over 147,000 visitors.
  • Pearls (September 2013 – January 2014): Organised by the V&A and Qatar Museums Authority, the exhibition explored the history of pearls from the early Roman Empire through to the present day and the importance of the pearl trade for countries along the Gulf coast from Saudi Arabia to Dubai, especially Bahrain and Qatar. The exhibition drew over 107,000 visitors.
  • The Wind Portal (September – November 2013): This installation by Lebanese designer Najla El Zein was on display as part of the London Design Festival in 2013.
  • Light from the Middle East: New Photography (November 2012 – April 2013): This show of contemporary Middle Eastern photography was drawn from the joint V&A and British Museum contemporary Middle Eastern photography collection, and was developed with support from the Art Fund. The show was seen by over 311, 700 visitors.
  • The Jameel Prize 2009 (July – September 2009) and The Jameel Prize 2011 (July – September 2011).

In the Middle East and North Africa

The V&A began touring exhibitions to the Middle East in 2008–2009.

  • Jameel Prize 4 will be displayed at the Pera Museum in Istanbul from 8 June 2016 to 14 August 2016. The award ceremony for the Prize will take place on 7 June 2016.
  • Jameel Prize 3 (2015): The exhibition was presented at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisations between 16 March – 6 June 2015, as part of a tour that took it to two venues in Russia – the Hermitage-Kazan Exhibition Centre, Kazan, and the New Manège, Moscow – and the National Library, Singapore. It attracted over 18,000 visitors.
  • Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A (2012): In collaboration with the British Council, this exhibition was shown at the Dar Al Fagi Hassan Art Gallery in Tripoli and at the Kusar Al Manara Gallery in Benghazi in Spring 2012, attracting over 3,902 visitors. It was the first exhibition from the V&A to travel to Libya.
  • Owen Jones: Islamic Design, Discovery and Vision (2011 – 2012): Owen Jones (1809–1874) was the visionary architect and designer who saw Islamic art as a key model for contemporary design and convinced the founders of the V&A to collect in this field. The display of Jones’s explorations of Islamic design toured to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design (Oslo), the Museum of the Alhambra (Granada), the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, and the Aram Art Gallery of the Goyang Cultural Foundation (Seoul). The tour attracted over 140,000 visitors.
  • Decode: Digital Design Sensations (November 2011 – March 2012): The exhibition was shown at the Design Museum Holon (Israel). It was a great success for the venue, attracting 31,000 visitors.
  • Jameel Prize 2009 (2010–2011): The 2009 show made a very successful tour in the Middle East, visiting to the National Museums in Riyadh and Damascus, the Beiteddine Palace in Lebanon, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul and La Villa des Arts in Casablanca. The tour attracted more than 49,000 visitors.
  • Masterpieces of World Ceramics (2008 – 2009): An exhibition of 120 outstanding works in this medium, it was exhibited in Damascus (Khan As’ad Basha), where it attracted 20,000 visitors, and in Istanbul (Pera Museum). It was the first international travelling exhibition to be seen at a venue in Syria.


The V&A and the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha have exchanged loans on a regular basis since the Qatari museum opened in 2008, beginning with the MIA’s opening exhibition, Beyond Boundaries. Loans have also been made to Gifts of the Sultan (2012) and Tea with Nefertiti (2012–2013). The MIA has two important items that once belonged to Robert Clive, an important figure in the history of British India, on long-term loan to the V&A: a ruby-set jade flask and an enameled huqqa set.

From December 2015, the V&A is making a long-term loan of three 14th-century marble tombstones to the National Museum of Oman. The tombstones come from the site of Dhofar in western Oman.


For adults

Recent events and activities include:

  • A lunchtime lecture by Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam (Assistant Curator, Asian Department) on 9 March 2016 on the V&A’s collection of talismanic objects and amulets, exploring the significance and social context within which they were created and used as well as the use of talismans and divinatory sciences in contemporary Iran.
  • An evening lecture by Elisa Sednaoui on 26 January 2016 discussing her foundation, which is working hard to build a cultural centre in Luxor, Egypt, providing different creative learning spaces focused on arts education to help children and youth explore and embrace innovation and diversity through hands-on experiences.

For schools

For primary schools, the V&A offers the following:

Investigating Pattern – KS 2
Discover incredible patterns from around the world, including the Islamic Middle East and South Asia.
Term time, Monday - Friday

V&A Voyage - KS1 & 2
Explore clothes, religious objects and artefacts from India, China and the Islamic Middle East.
Term time, Monday – Friday

For secondary schools, the V&A offers the following:

Use the collection from the Islamic Middle East to inspire designs for garment embellishment.
Dates: 23 - 27 November; 14 - 19 March; 27 June - 1 July

For families

Recent events have included:

  • Pop-up performances of traditional tales for families in the Jameel Gallery on 7 March 2015, 6 June 2015, 22 January 2016, and 30 January 2016. Further performances are planned for June 2016.
  • To accompany the display A Room from Damascus in the Islamic Middle East Gallery (April–December 2015), events were held in Refugee Week (15–21 June 2015), including a lunchtime lecture by Anke Scharrahs (17 June), a drop-in design day for families (21 June), and a Syrian story-telling performance (20 and 21 June). A study day was also held on 3 October 2015 introducing the Damascus Rooms and the decorated luxury town house interiors of 18th and 19th century Syria. Speakers included those who lived in and worked to restore these houses.
  • A new families trail, introduced in April 2015, that includes two routes through Level 1 that take visitors through the Islamic Middle East Gallery and introduce the Ardabil carpet.
  • The Norouz Family Day held at the V&A on 22 March 2015, which was attended by more than 6,700 visitors. Events took place across the V&A including music, dance and other performances, as well as the creation of a giant, pop-up three-dimensional work in paper based on an Iranian carpet design, to which families were asked to contribute. There were also opportunities to create digital art work and to learn about the tradition of Haft Sin table displays at Norouz by making a Haft Sin out of paper and wool and adding appropriate objects. The Norouz Family Day was featured on the Iranian TV channel Manoto.

Special Education Needs Programme

Iranian Picnic Tiles – SEN Box
Multi-sensory and interactive, our sessions for students with special educational needs are based around some of the most popular objects in the collections and encourage exploration through hands-on tactile objects and activities.


Institutional Collaborations

  • The V&A has worked with the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) in the past to produce sold-out events such as Looking backward, looking forward: Rifaat Chadirji and Jananne Al Ani in conversation with Zeina Arida in September 2013. Zeina Arida is Director of the AIF, which holds over 600,000 images from across the Middle East, acting as a major resource for artist such as Al Ani.
  • The V&A has also collaborated with the Iran Heritage Foundation, the Delfina Foundation, the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize, the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, the Sharjah Art Foundation, Bidoun, Kalimat Magazine, and individuals such as Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige to organise two highly successful Friday Late programmes in March and November 2012.
  • National Museum of Oman: The V&A is providing targeted consultancy support to the National Museum to help the museum to develop its learning strategy. In 2013 Max Donnelly (Curator, Furniture, Textiles and Fashion) conducted a short curatorial consultancy to assess the preservation of the National Museum’s furniture collection. In 2015, Anaïs Aguerre (Head of International Initiatives) and Emmajane Avery (Director of Learning and Visitor Experience) ran a second consultancy which aims at developing the strategic basis for the development of the National Museum’s learning programmes. They conducted a research trip between 20-23 March 2015 to Muscat, Oman.

Diplomatic Relationships

  • On 14 March 2016, Martin Roth, Director, participated in a panel discussion on the preservation of cultural heritage at the Art for Tomorrow conference held in Doha, Qatar, by the New York Times at the invitation of Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani.


  • INHA Project (2016): The V&A has begun a three-year collaborative research project with the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, focusing on the subject of Nineteenth-century Collecting of Mamluk and Ottoman Art in Egypt and Syria. This project will allow us to deepen the Museum’s expertise into the objects collected at this time and the context of their collecting history, and will arrange for conservation and photography of all relevant objects. They will be presented at the end of the project in an international conference and edited volume.
  • New Collecting Awards (2015): Middle Eastern Section curator, Mariam Rosser-Owen, was among the first five national awardees of The Art Fund’s New Collecting Awards programme in 2015. This consists of a grant of up to £50,000 to research and make acquisitions of contemporary craft from the Middle East, with a focus on North Africa.
  • Shubbak Festival – A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture (11 – 25 July 2015): As part of the Shubbak Festival 2015, a mobile sound installation, Carroussa Sonore, visited several places in London and was exhibited in the John Madejski Garden on 18 July 2015. Based on the improvised mobile stalls of merchants of cassettes of Quranic material, Younes Baba Ali’s Carroussa Sonore commissioned and played new sound works from Arab and international artists reflecting on London, its communities and soundscapes. This was Carroussa Sonore’s UK premiere, following its successful presentations in Brussels, Rabat and Marseille. In conjunction with Carroussa Sonore, the new communities/adult workshops programmer, Rasheeda Nalumoso, ran an event for Shubbak, showing the work of Younes Baba Ali.
  • Culture in Crisis (14 April 2015): A one-day international conference was held at the V&A on the recent destruction and loss of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, and the role of museums in regions of conflict. This conference was held in collaboration with the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Yale University, under the patronage of UNESCO. Opened by the Director, Martin Roth, speakers included Maamoun Abdulkarim (Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Syria), Ilaria Borletti-Buitoni (Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism, Italy), Jonathan Tubb (Keeper, Middle East department, British Museum), Stéphane Thefo (Office of Legal Affairs, INTERPOL General Secretariat), and Stefano De Caro (Director General, ICCROM). Video footage of the conference can be found on the V&A Youtube channel. The V&A also supported the Conflict and Cultural Heritage Conference held at St John’s College, University of Oxford, on 31 October 2015. For further details, visit our Culture in Crisis page.
  • The Drawbox Project, commissioned by Design Museum Holon for Design Week Holon 2014, was created by the Interaction Lab at the Holon Institute of Technology. The project was made possible with the support of the British Council's BIARTS programme for cultural exchange, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport. The V&A hosted a joint event on 4 - 5 October 2014, installing another Drawbox station in the Learning Centre with visiting artists from Holon. Families collaborated on drawings which, when scanned, appeared and interacted together on a projected screen, bringing together children’s art and families in London and Israel. This event was attended by 238 participants.
  • Led by Directorate, the installation Project Syria: The immersive virtual experience was shown at the V&A in June 2014, during Refugee Week. An original and thought-provoking piece of documentary journalism, it combined real audio, video and photographs. It was originally commissioned by the World Economic Forum and created by Nonny de la Peña at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
  • The V&A’s Style Cities: Beirut seminar in November 2013 explored the city’s Golden Age as the 'Paris of the Middle East' in the 1950’s and 1960’s as part of the Nour Festival that year. The panelists were Professor George Arbid, American University of Beirut, the writer Viviane Ghanem and the journalist Freiha Asma, and their presence ensured a sold-out event. Following this, the Learning department and Middle East section co-organised Style Cities: Casablanca as part of the Nour Festival 2014. The seminar took place on 1 November 2014 and focused on Casablanca’s legacy in architecture and design from the 1960’s.
  • In 2012 the V&A organised two highly successful Friday Late programmes in collaboration with the Iran Heritage Foundation, the Delfina Foundation, the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize, the Sharjah Art Foundation, Bidoun, Kalimat Magazine, and individuals such as Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The first, in March, was Night of Norouz, designed to celebrate Iranian New Year. The second, Record, Reframe, Resist, was held in November and was timed to coincide with the Light from the Middle East exhibition.
  • As noted above, the biennial Jameel Prize, first awarded in 2009, is an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic traditions. Its aim is to explore the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today. The Jameel Prize has allowed the Museum to build new relationships throughout the region and beyond.


  • In June 2010 Travel with the V&A ran a trip to Lebanon for 25 of the Museum’s Patrons. Highlights included a visit to the National Museum of Beirut, two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Baalbek and Anjar and a private visit to Palais Soursock, one of Beirut’s great Italianate villas from the 19th century. The group was also invited to attend the Grand Opening of the Jameel Prize exhibition at the Presidential Summer Palace at Beiteddine, which was followed by a performance by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • Members of the Museum’s Director’s Circle toured major cities and archaeological sites in Syria in October 2008.


The V&A has published work on Middle Eastern subjects since 1876. Relevant V&A publications since 2006 include the following:

  • Moya Carey, Collecting Art and Design in Qajar Iran (V&A Publishing, forthcoming)
  • Beatrix Chadour-Sampson and Hubert Bari, Pearls (V&A Publishing, 2013)
  • Patricia Baker and Jennifer Wearden, Iranian Textiles (V&A Publishing, 2010)
  • Mariam Rosser-Owen, Islamic Arts from Spain (V&A Publishing, 2010)
  • Charles Newton, Images of the Ottoman Empire (V&A Publishing, 2007, English and Arabic Editions)
  • Rosemary Crill and Tim Stanley, eds., The Making of the Jameel Gallery (V&A Publishing, 2006)
  • Tim Stanley, Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Middle East (V&A Publishing, 2004)