The Frick Pittsburgh postponed an exhibition featuring 10 centuries of Islamic art that was supposed to open on Saturday, citing the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war and the fear that the show could become “a source of unintended insensitivity or offense.”
The decision to postpone the show, which was to include scientific instruments, fine glassware, paintings and metalwork from across the Middle East, was denounced by some Muslim and Jewish groups, who said that the museum’s action seemed to suggest or imply a false connection between masterpieces of Islamic art and terrorism.
The postponement was reported earlier by The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which noted that the museum initially said on its website only that the delay had been due to “a scheduling conflict.” The museum’s executive director, Elizabeth Barker, told The Tribune-Review that “we realized that we were about to open an exhibition that a forgiving person would call insensitive, but for many people, especially in our community, would be traumatic.”
Christine Mohamed, the executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement that the “decision to postpone the ‘Treasured Ornament: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art’ exhibition under the pretext of potential harm to the Jewish community perpetuates the harmful stereotype that Muslims or Islamic art are synonymous with terrorism or antisemitism.”
And Adam Hertzman, an official with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told the radio station WESA that “few people in the Jewish community would have been concerned about an exhibit on Islamic art because we understand that has nothing to do with Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.”
The Tribune-Review reported that Ms. Barker had written an email to the museum’s staff on Oct. 11 saying that she wanted to discuss the exhibition “given the war in Israel and the inflammatory anti-Islamic rhetoric related to the current political environment.” In a statement Thursday, Ms. Barker said that the decision to postpone “was motivated by concerns that it trivializes and risks objectifying Islamic culture as merely decorative and was prepared without the Frick’s characteristic engagement with broad community partners, in this case the Pittsburgh Muslim community.”
The decision to postpone came as Pittsburgh was preparing to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, which killed 11 worshipers and wounded six more in the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.
The museum later updated its website with a fuller explanation of the delay, noting that it had been planned years in advance. “At the time of scheduling,” it said, “it would have been impossible to predict that war would erupt in the Middle East during the time of this show, prompting widespread heartbreak and mounting social tension.”
The museum said that the exhibition, in its existing form, “lacked sufficient historical and cultural context” and that it “also lacked participation from the regional Islamic community and others.”
“Presenting the show as originally conceived elsewhere, years ago, risked trivializing Islamic culture at an extraordinarily complex time and turning an intended educational opportunity into a divisive political touchstone, a source of unintended insensitivity or offense, and a distraction from our important service to the entire community,” it said.
It was not the first time that a museum has pulled an exhibition in recent years at a time of rising tensions.
In 2020, amid the racial justice protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, four major museums — the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — postponed a show of the artist Philip Guston, saying that his works, which included charged imagery of hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, needed more context. The postponement was criticized by many artists who accused the museums of shying away from controversy.
The postponed exhibition was organized by the nonprofit International Arts and Artists, which created it on behalf of the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia.
“There is nothing wrong with the exhibition; I think the timing was not right for them,” Gregory Houston, president and chief executive of the nonprofit International Arts and Artists, said of the Pittsburgh museum. “We will work with them to reimagine it in the context they deem appropriate. We are looking to reschedule for next year.”
Geoffrey K. Fleming, the executive director of the Huntington, said that “every museum has to make its own decisions regarding what is going on with their shows and world affairs” but that he would “love to see it at some point at the Frick Pittsburgh so that people can enjoy the exhibition.”
Walter B. Denny, a retired professor of Islamic art who helped prepare a publication related to the exhibition, said the collection was supposed to help people understand the diversity of Islamic art, and said that it included works by Muslims, Jews and Christians.
“There is a great irony here,” Denny said by phone. “The collection is so far away from anything that is remotely political or sympathetic to fanaticism.”