The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait has made uncertain a major exhibition of 107 Islamic art objects owned by members of the Kuwaiti ruling family, scheduled to open Dec. 9 at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, said museum Director Robert Bergman.
A Kuwaiti Embassy source said that because of more urgent matters, "now is not the time to discuss the show."
Similarly, Bergman said the museum had no real information about what might happen. "Everything we know now is third-hand," he said.
The pan-Islamic treasures are now on view at the Hermitage museum in Leningrad. The 9th- to 17th-century artworks include gold, diamond and emerald jewelry; carved ivory; ceramics; rugs; and gilded manuscripts including Korans. Esin Atil, Near Eastern curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler and Freer galleries, chose the objects and edited the exhibition's catalogue, now being printed in Milan.
Sheikha Hussah Sabah, daughter of a former emir, and her husband, Sheikh Nassar Sabah, son of the Kuwaiti foreign minister, selected and bought the objects over 20 years. She is the director of the collection. The couple are believed to be safely out of Kuwait and awaiting the birth of their fourth child.
The choice objects are only a small part of the thousands of artworks in what is called the most important privately owned collection in the Middle East, the Dar Athar Islamiyyah, said Ellen Reeder, the Walters's curator of ancient art. "The entire collection constitutes the principal displays in the Kuwait National Museum."
Bergman said he fears the museum is damaged or in jeopardy. "Fortunately," he said, "a great collection of Islamic art from the Hermitage, lent to the Kuwait museum, was returned in July."
The Walters has not canceled the show, but it does have a backup exhibition of Islamic art from its own collection, just in case.
"Our information is sketchy and incomplete," said Ann Van Devanter Townsend, president of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, which plans to send the show to Richmond, Fort Worth, St. Louis, Atlanta and Paris.
Townsend said the objects were originally supposed to leave the Hermitage when the show closes on Sept. 2 and go back to Kuwait before coming to Baltimore. "But of course that doesn't make sense at the moment. We are sending telexes back and forth to Anatole Ivanov," the Hermitage's curator of Islamic art, she said. "We hope to have word soon as to what is to be done from the family's London representative."
Reeder said he thought the show should go ahead "as a point of pride for Kuwait and all the Islamic world."
An accompanying documentary on Islamic culture, to be shown on PBS, is being edited by Washington filmmaker Jo Franklin-Trout.