LACMA Invents a Portable Period Room

Damascus Room, Syria, AD 1766-67/AH 1180. LACMA

In 2014 LACMA acquired a richly decorated reception room from 18th-century Damascus. It is just now making its Los Angeles debut in "Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting" (through Aug. 4, 2023, in the Resnick Pavilion). Located at the exhibition's entrance, the reception room, which functioned as a dining space, helps set the context for a 250-piece loan show of miniature paintings, ceramics, glassware, and metalwork relating to the food culture of the Islamic world.

The Damascus room becomes LACMA's first and only period room. Such displays were popular in 20th-century American museums, even as some questioned their authenticity. In recent decades period rooms have fallen from favor, for one thing because they commit a lot of space to an essentially frozen-in-time display. The issue is particularly acute at LACMA, committed to Michael Govan's vision of ever-changing remixes of the permanent collection. A period room is about as permanent as a museum installation gets.

Armature for Damascus room, from gallery video

—Unless it's a period room designed for travel. The Damascus room has been constructed with a modular armature. This allows its components to be assembled and disassembled with (relative) ease. A gallery video, narrated by late actor and collector Julian Sands, suggests it will be "the first-ever portable Damascene room," one that could be lent to other museums.

The room has already racked up some frequent flyer miles. It comes from the Damascus home of Mohamad Salim El Mourabeh (b. 1932) and family. Their venerable compound was torn down to make way for a road in 1978. Its elements were purchased by an antiquities dealer and exported to Beirut. After remaining in storage for over 30 years, the room was moved to a London gallery, where LACMA curator Linda Komaroff encountered it. LACMA acquired the room as civil war broke out in Syria.

Calligraphy panel. The poetry is from the Hamziyya of Egyptian poet Sharaf al-Din Muhammad

The room's elements were then transported to Los Angeles for conservation. LACMA struck a deal with the incipient King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Dhahran, which agreed to pay part of the cost of conservation in return for the right to show the room as part of a loan of Islamic works from LACMA. Touted as an example of international cooperation, the deal hasn't aged well. The Abdulaziz Center is funded by the Saudi oil cartel, Aramco. The room was first shown in Dhahran in 2018, the year Saudi agents murdered and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Shelves with collection objects
If you've seen pre-conservation photos of the room, the make-over is astonishing. This is a winter reception room, used for entertaining in the cooler months. Measuring 15 by 20 ft, the room is divided into a marble-floor antechamber and a raised area for dining. The visitor is able to enter the antechamber space. Wood paneling is embellished with colorful al-'ajami (gypsum paste reliefs covered with metal leaf, glazes, and matte paint). Niches allow the display of pieces from the museum's collection. 


The painted decoration includes not only floral subjects but food. There's a pyramid of whitish triangles that seem to represent baklava. Eighteenth-century Damascus was a cosmopolitan city aware of Western and Eastern cooking as well as art.

Window bars without a window
The urban palaces of Damascus were nondescript on the outside. Discreet street doors offered a zigzag path into a luxurious courtyard planted with citrus. Summer entertaining was done in a three-sided open space, facing northward. The LACMA room would have faced south, for light and warmth in winter. Its courtyard-facing windows had bars but no glass.
Damascus Room at Metropolitan Museum, New York. AD 1707/AH 1119
Until now, the only such room in America was at the Metropolitan Museum. The New York room, also from Damascus, is 60 years earlier and bigger (16.7 by 26.4 ft.) It includes a wood ceiling (the LACMA room does not) and clerestory stained glass windows (simulated at LACMA with projected images above the paneling). The Met room is however a pastiche of elements that weren't all from the same room. The original location of the panelling is unknown. 
Faux stained glass clerestory in LACMA installation. Roof by Renzo Piano
The main difference is that the Met room is much darker and less colorful than its L.A. counterpart. Like many such rooms, its paneling was varnished, and this has darkened with age. The LACMA room wasn't vanished, and its brighter colors presumably give a better idea of the original effect.

In 2015 Komaroff called the room's discovery and recreation "one of the most exciting and gratifying moments of my curatorial career. Being in the room is a joy; it exudes a kind of beauty, warmth and comfort, which is in keeping with its original function as a place for welcoming guests. But that joy is tempered by the sadness of the continuing deterioration of daily life in Syria, the diaspora of its citizens, and the destruction of its historic monuments. For now, the room must play one more role as a preserver of memories of Syria…"


Anonymous said…
Creative and technical skills (drafting, drawing, coloring, manufacturing, engineering, assembling) are a sight to behold. The original creators of the Damascus Room and, more recently, the people restoring and operationally repackaging it show a lot of blood, sweat, tears and talent.

Knowing how quickly things fray or deteriorate, the condition (and restoration) of this other property - like a million Damascus Rooms put together - astounds me.

Astounding properties like that (around 77 miles from Louvre World in Orlando, France) make what's going on with LACMA (smaller but with more windows---and more costly too!) even more baffling.
Is here sound of water flowing continuously at the LACMA room?
The Met's room one of my favorite NY spaces.
There are no water sounds. (But the hypnotic audio from a contemporary video piece by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji leaks through “Dining with the Sultan.”)