The Victoria & Albert Museum has removed from its website the image of an artwork depicting the prophet Muhammad, the Guardian reports. The decision to remove the image was triggered by growing security concerns, following the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was targeted for publishing caricatures of the Prophet.
The move seems a typical response, in what is part of a wider pattern of apparent self-censorship by British institutions that scholars fear could undermine public understanding of Islamic art, and the diversity of Muslim traditions.
British museums and libraries hold dozens of similar images, which are mostly miniatures in manuscripts several centuries old, but these works have been kept largely out of public view. The decision not to display works of this nature in British museums and galleries, is apparently driven by controversy about satirical or offensive portraits of Muhammad by non-Muslims.
A US expert came forward and provided a link to a poster in its collection, with the inscription “Mohammad the Prophet of God”. That page in the database was deleted last week, after the V&A was asked if it held any images of Muhammad after the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and it stated that there were none.
but the image can still be found in a cached version. A spokeswoman for the V&A later responded that their original response was “an honest error”.
“Unfortunately we were incorrect to say there were no works depicting the prophet Muhammad in the V&A’s collection,” a spokeswoman, Olivia Colling, stated in an email to the Guardian, adding that the image had subsequently been taken down because of security concerns. “As the museum is a high-profile public building already on a severe security alert, our security team made the decision that it was best to remove the image from our online database (it remains within the collection).”
Yet after an image of Muhammad was included in a 2013 exhibition in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and hung next to a Christian icon, as part of an exhibition on cross-cultural encounters – there were no negative reactions.
“We knew it might be controversial, but decided to take the risk because the story is important to tell,” said Mirjam Shatanawi, an Islamic art specialist and the Tropenmuseum’s curator for the Middle East and North Africa. “These images are a real eye-opener, a powerful example of Islam being different and more diverse than many imagine.
“If Muslims feel offended by images made by other Muslims out of reverence for the prophet, I’m not sure if the museum should decide not to show them. It seems like choosing one interpretation of Islam over the other. These images are not made to disrespect but – on the contrary – to honour the prophet.” Shatanawi concluded to the Guardian.
The Muslim Council of Britain declined to comment on whether it considered the images offensive, or whether it would object to their display.
Other British institutions that hold images of Muhammad in their Islamic art collections do show some of the works on their websites, but have not exhibited these works of late. The Muslim Council of Britain has so far declined to comment on whether it considered the images offensive, or whether it would object to their display.