This past spring the University of Michigan served as host for the seventh Historians of Islamic Art Association (HIAA) Biennial Symposium. Originally planned for October 2020, safety concerns and travel restrictions due to the Coronavirus pandemic led to a delay and then conversion of the in-person event to an online format. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Christiane Gruber (Professor and Chair, History of Art Department, University of Michigan, and President-Elect, Historians of Islamic Art Association) and Bihter Esener (Symposium Managing Organizer) the event was seamlessly hosted online from April 15th to 18th, 2021.
The event kicked off with the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum (DISC) Distinguished Lecture keynote presented by Stefan Weber, director of the Museum for Islamic Art, Pergamon Museum, Berlin. In “Pulling the Past into the Present: Curating Islamic Art in a Changing World,” Weber discussed the museum’s pending gallery reinstallation. His presentation highlighted the successes and failures the curatorial development team faced in their efforts to create an engaging and inclusive installation that would serve local and international audiences, bringing to the fore broader concerns around making the history of the Islamicate world accessible to general audiences.
The symposium was a welcome event at the University of Michigan, where the field of Islamic art gained its first academic position in the United States nearly a century ago. Titled “Regime Change,” the symposium invited presenters and attendees to reflect critically on the “regimes,” or systems that shape knowledge production within the field of Islamic art, including but not limited to modes of circulation, access to resources, and new technologies. Within this framework, the presented panels brought forth a range of topics from the relationship between political transformation and architecture in South Asia (on which Ross Bernhaut, UM PhD candidate, presented), to issues of identity and labor in medieval and premodern crafts, to the art and architecture of fourteenth-century sub-Saharan Africa (on which Raymond Miller, UM professor emeritus, presented and Ashley Miller, UM Forsyth Postdoctoral Fellow, served as discussant).
Despite the challenges of hosting an online symposium, the new format allowed for a truly global audience of over 450 registered attendees, including from Lebanon, the UAE, Egypt, Brazil, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, China, and India, to name just a few. Furthermore, the digital realm did not prove a barrier to lively discussions during question-and-answer sessions, while the Zoom Chat feature allowed for more informal information and idea sharing. Though everyone surely misses the benefits that come from meeting in-person, especially with food and drink, the online format provided a much-needed opportunity for colleagues from across the world to meet and engage. Perhaps future iterations of the symposium will find a way to continue to maintain an online presence so that more voices will continue to be included. Ultimately, the 2021 HIAA Symposium was a chance to reflect on the opportunities that can accompany change, both those we have studied from the past and those we have unexpectedly faced in our contemporary moment.