The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People under Heaven, is “studded with remarkable things,” according to Diana Muir Appelbaum; however, it presents the city’s history in “soft focus,” includes many objects only tangentially related to Jerusalem, and is at times downright deceptive. The reason, Appelbaum writes, is the curators’ desire to give entirely uniform treatment to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:
[T]he curators have [presented] medieval Jerusalem as a city shared equally by Muslims, Christians, and Jews, with the differences among them no more significant than the choice of whether to make falafel with fava beans or chickpeas. Imposing such a narrative requires a major elision of reality. . . .
Much of the time . . . the exhibit is so detached from Jerusalem as to make me wonder whether the curators, experts in medieval art, had ever visited Jerusalem or studied these faith traditions. Without some explanation of the sort, it is hard to understand the statement . . . that the Dome [of the Rock] enshrines a natural stone outcropping “variously understood as the site of Abraham’s sacrifice, the location of the tabernacle in the Temple of Solomon, and the point of departure for the Prophet Muhammad’s Ascent to Paradise.” . . . .
[Among other problems with this phrasing], Muhammad’s ascension to heaven and Abraham’s near sacrifice of his beloved son are legendary accounts. The location of the ancient Temple, by contrast, is an archaeological and historical fact. The curator responsible for the text may have attempted to stay just inside the bounds of accuracy by referring to the “Temple of Solomon.” The construction of a temple on this spot by a king named Solomon—as opposed to the later Temple built on the site by exiles returning from Babylon—cannot be proven, which gives the text the uncomfortable appearance of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—a very different thing from truth.
The great puzzle of this exhibition is why someone would assemble this grand procession of manuscripts, textiles, glass, pottery, carvings, metalwork, and drawings and make no effort at all to answer the question posed at the entrance: “Why did [Jerusalem] hold the world’s focus for the next four centuries?” Or even attempt to give viewers a sense of what Jerusalem was like in those centuries. . . .
As it stands, Jerusalem 1000-1400 is a procession of remarkable objects in search of a narrative. Given that even today Jerusalem continues to captivate much of the world’s attention, that is a pity.