Harmony and Balance

What does a butterfly have in common with a plumeria flower? What does a pineapple field have in common with the parking lot at Ala Moana Center?

They all exhibit a quality called symmetry. And regardless of whether symmetry is naturally occurring or man-made, there’s no doubt that it appeals to both our eyes and our emotions.

“Symmetry and Islamic Art,” on view in the lobby of the Hawai‘i State Library from January 11 through March 16, explores symmetry as it relates to works of art in the DDFIA collection. Visitors are challenged to test out reflection symmetry by using a mirror, to create symmetrical shapes using pattern blocks, and to tessellate replicas of Shangri La’s star and cross tiles.


The exhibit also encourages visitors to identify and photograph examples of symmetry right here in Honolulu. Tweet your photos of symmetry, and tag @Shangrilahi and @HSPLSHIgov. We’ll re-tweet our favorites. First 10 respondents win a set of Shangri La notecards.

On Saturday, March 12, from 12:00-1:30 pm, scholar Carol Bier and ‘Iolani School math instructor David Masunaga will present a workshop on symmetry and Islamic art at the state library. Details:

Workshop: Symmetry in Islamic Art
Saturday, March 12, 2016, 12-1:30 pm
Hawai‘i State Library, 1st floor reading room
Ages 5 and up, 24 participants maximum
Instructors: Carol Bier and David Masunaga

Through hands-on activities in origami, cutting, and coloring, participants of all ages will enjoy creating designs and patterns. In these patterns we will find symmetry and geometry also present in works of Islamic art that can be seen at Shangri La, Doris Duke’s home in Honolulu, which is now a museum of Islamic art. Workshop leaders Carol Bier and David Masunaga are world-renowned for their study of geometric patterns; they will guide us through connections that tell us about intriguing and far-reaching geometric principles which lead us to an understanding of Islamic art.

Questions? Call the Hawai‘i State Library at 586-3500. Contact the library 10 days in advance to request a sign language interpreter or if special accommodation is needed.

About the instructors:

Carol Bier is an historian of Islamic art who specializes in the study of geometric patterns in art and architecture. Her award-winning website, Symmetry and Pattern: The Art of Oriental Carpets, is hosted by The Math Forum, an extensive on-line resource for mathematics education under the auspices of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Formerly curator at The Textile Museum in Washington, DC (1984-2001), she is currently a visiting scholar with the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and research associate at The Textile Museum. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts (London).

David Masunaga’s interests have always been diverse, and he feels especially blessed to be able to pursue four things which bring him much joy: mathematics teaching at the precollege level, teaching adult professional educators in new classroom techniques and technologies, pursuing his mathematical research in modeling convex polytopes, and lecturing at hundreds of professional meetings, institutes, and universities.  David has numerous national awards for his work in mathematics and mathematics education, is a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching, and is past director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He fills his precious free time playing the oboe and other double reed instruments professionally and has played in Carnegie Hall twice, once soloing on the English horn. He and Carol Bier presented the first public lecture on Doris Duke’s Shangri La estate, which is now a museum of Islamic art.

Special thanks to the Hawai‘i State Library for hosting, and to our library colleagues Tisha Aragaki and Kristin Laitila!



Conservation in Paradise

Small Syrian Room. © 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
Small Syrian Room. © 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

As we finish up our last week here at Shangri La, we can’t help but to reflect on the amazing experiences we have had over the past eight weeks. Spending an entire summer surrounded by exquisite Islamic art and architecture on the southern coast of Oahu proved to be quite an experience. As part of our ongoing art conservation training at Buffalo State University and Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and in conjunction with the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, we were able to participate in a project to help preserve another part of Doris Duke’s historic home: the Syrian Room ceiling. The project involved thoroughly documenting the ceiling’s condition as well as the inch-by-inch consolidation of loose and flaking paint and decoration. Much of the degradation observed on the ceiling is likely a result of its close proximity to the salty waters of the Pacific.

Although Shangri La’s oceanside locale is visually stunning, the physical and chemical effects from salt-laden aerosols incurred by the art and architecture on site are not as breathtaking. Salt-filled air from the Pacific Ocean passes through the open corridors of the home: corroding metals, penetrating painted surfaces, and otherwise accelerating the degradation processes of a myriad of materials. The preservation of the site as a whole requires constant upkeep by conservation, curatorial, and maintenance personnel.

Nick Pedemonti consolidating flaking paint on the ceiling of the small Syrian Room. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Nicole Peters, 2014.)
Nick Pedemonti consolidating flaking paint on the ceiling of the small Syrian Room. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Nicole Peters, 2014.)

Given these aggressive environmental conditions (salt, water, heat- oh my!) and the current state of the ceiling, the required treatment was addressed using an “archaeological site approach.” Essentially, this site needs help, and it will not spend its life in a dim-lit, temperature and RH-controlled environment, so a more intense intervention is required. With syringes and paintbrushes in hand, we injected and wicked adhesive into every crevice and cupped paint flake necessary to prevent further flaking and cracking to ensure the stability of the surface as a whole. The project took us approximately one month to complete.

Nicole Peters applying fill material around the newly attached forearm of a late 19th/early 20th century Krishna sculpture from Rajasthan, India (#41.140). (Photo: Nick Pedemonti, 2014.)
Nicole Peters applying fill material around the newly attached forearm of a late 19th/early 20th century Krishna sculpture from Rajasthan, India (#41.140). (Photo: Nick Pedemonti, 2014.)

Shangri La conservator Kent Severson, ensured us that for the remaining four weeks of our internship, there was no shortage of objects to work on. The greatly anticipated opening of the Mughal Suite initiated our first project: the treatment of two Krishna sculptures. Both sculptures required the removal of corroded iron dowels and the reattachment of appendages with stainless steel dowels and polyester resin. Collectively, this summer we have been given the chance to work on sculptures and architectural elements made from schist, marble, stone, ivory, gold, and mother of pearl. The internship here at Shangri La provided a great opportunity to work with a truly unique collection made from vastly different materials and techniques.

We have learned a great deal this summer about Shangri La, Doris Duke, and the conservation of the collection, and we have also learned a great deal about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture and hospitality. It is with a heavy heart we bid adieu to our Shangri La ohana, we will miss you dearly!


Nick and Nicole

Upcoming Traveling Exhibition: Doris Duke’s Shangri La

Doris Duke. Photo by Martin Munkásci, 1939. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

For the past two years, staff and consultants in Hawai‘i and New York been working hard to plan and organize a major traveling exhibition, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art. The exhibition will open at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York on September 7, 2012, and will then travel to five museums and galleries on the continental United States before returning to the Honolulu Museum of Art in March 2015.  It’s the first major exhibition about Shangri La to be shown outside Hawai‘i, and we’re very excited to share the story of Duke’s transformative engagement with the Islamic world and her work at Shangri La with national audiences.

Organized by guest curators Donald Albrecht, curator of design for the Museum of the City of New York and Thomas Mellins, architectural historian, with extensive support from DDFIA staff, the exhibition explores the synthesis of 1930s modernist architecture, tropical landscape and Islamic art that Duke achieved at Shangri La. The exhibit features large-scale, newly commissioned photographs by noted architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter that give visitors the “feel” of the site; archival materials that document the construction and evolution of Shangri La; and a selection of more than 60 objects of Islamic art from the collection.

The Playhouse at Shangri La, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. © Tim Street-Porter 2011. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Six of Shangri La’s past artists in residence have even created new work for the exhibition. The artists’ contributions, which reflect their responses to Shangri La, will include

  • giant, vivid projections by Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969 in Pakistan, lives and works in New York) that capture the paradox of Shangri La, a place created by an American woman and filled with items from many Muslim countries;

    Unseen 3, Shahzia Sikander, HD-Digital Projection, 2011. Photo by David Adams.
  • lantern-like metal sculptures in the shape of missiles and rockets, evoking a sense of both violence and opulence, by Afruz Amighi (b. 1974 in Iran, lives and works in New York);
  • a video installation by Emre Hüner (b. 1977 in Turkey, lives and works in Berlin and Istanbul) capturing the hidden details of Shangri La, past and present;
  • calligraphic works by Mohamed Zakariya (b. 1942 in the U.S., lives and works in Arlington, Virginia) inspired by the physical landscape of Shangri La and its setting on the ocean;
  • poems by Zakariya Amataya (b. 1975 in Thailand, lives and works in Bangkok) reflecting the influences of both Southeast Asian Muslim culture and American Beat poetry;
  • conceptual art by Walid Raad (b. 1967 in Lebanon, lives and works in New York) exploring the shadows and reflections of Islamic art.
Tile panel, Turkey, possibly Istanbul, ca. 1650. (48.43) © 2003 David Franzen. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

We’ve got just seven weeks until the opening of the exhibit, and staff and consultants are extremely busy finalizing conservation work, writing condition reports, making mounts to support the objects on exhibition, reviewing and finalizing label copy, selecting archival images, etc.  Packing and shipping are right around the corner, and installation at the Museum of Arts and Design will take place during the last two weeks of August.

Exhibition guest curators Donald Albrecht and Tom Mellins have also edited an accompanying 216-page book, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: A House in Paradise, to be published in September 2012 by Skira/Rizzoli. The book features a portfolio of photographs by Tim Street-Porter and essays by Linda Komaroff (curator of Islamic art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) about Duke’s collecting in the greater context of Islamic art collections in the United States; by Keelan Overton (curator of Islamic art, Shangri La) about the work Duke commissioned for Shangri La; by Sharon Littlefield (former curator, Shangri La) about the relationship of the collection to the architecture; and by the editors about Shangri La’s design and construction.

Below is the full tour schedule. Please drop us a line if you get a chance to see the exhibition. We’d love to hear what you think!


  • Museum of Arts and Design, NY (September 7, 2012–February 17, 2013);
  • Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL (March 16–July 15, 2013);
  • Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, NC (August 29, 2013–January 5, 2014);
  • University of Michigan Museum of Art, MI (January 25–May 4, 2014);
  • Nevada Museum of Art, NV (May 31–September 7, 2014);
  • Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, CA (October 23–December 28, 2014);
  • Honolulu Museum of Art, HI (March 4–July 5, 2015).

Installing the Damascus Room

The turmoil in Syria has been much in the news lately. With the opening of our Damascus Room, we hope to make visitors aware of this nation’s rich cultural heritage by letting them experience the world of 18th- and 19th-century Damascus.

View of the newly opened Damascus Room from the southeast corner. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

During the later years of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), when this room’s paneling was originally created, Damascus was a bustling and cosmopolitan trading center. Well-to-do residents entertained their guests in reception rooms generally known by the Arabic word qa‘a (hall) that featured elaborate ‘ajami woodwork (in which a raised surface of animal glue and gypsum was painted and then further embellished with metal leaf and/or mirrors) and luxury trade items such as textiles, glassware, ceramics and metalwork.

Georges Asfar in the retrofitted Damascus Room prior to its shipment to Honolulu. (Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.)

Shangri La’s Damascene interior was acquired from the Damascus- and Beirut-based firm Asfar & Sarkis (with whom Duke had been working since the 1930s) in 1953. The interior was then retrofitted by the al-Khayyat workshop of Damascus so that it would fit in the former “Spanish Room” at Shangri La. Doris Duke began installing the room in 1955, and it continued to serve as a guest room for nearly 40 years.

Over time, the temperature and ocean breezes, which make Shangri La such a pleasant place to visit, take their toll on buildings and objects. Thanks to the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), the Damascus Room has undergone extensive conservation work, which identified and addressed areas of loss and damage. Now that treatment of the room is complete, we’ve decided to make it a part of our regular public tours. In fact, we’re proud to be one of only a handful of institutions that exhibit—and allow visitors to walk into—Syrian interiors of this type.

Conservator Kent Severson installs a pane of protective glass in the objects vitrine. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

In planning and installing this exhibit, one of the biggest challenges we faced was working with the historic vitrines. How were we going to install shelving without drilling holes through the original wood? And how were we going to protect the delicate objects on display in the east vitrine? Luckily our team came up with some innovative solutions: We used velvet-covered boards to support both ends of the glass shelves, and we slid multiple panels of glass (rather than a single large panel) into the object vitrine.

Curator Keelan Overton and I arrange original documents and photographs inside the archival exhibit case. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Improvisation was indeed the name of the game. Conservator Kent Severson and consulting textile conservator Ann Svenson devised a method of hanging textiles inside the vitrines. They also suspended our photos and interpretive labels from the glass shelves using dabs of silicone and monofilament thread (dental floss was even considered, albeit briefly).

We all did our best to work with the room’s changing light, and its variable temperature and airflow. We hope that the resulting exhibit, which features archival displays (facsimiles and originals), as well as a range of textiles and objects that reflect both Doris Duke’s collecting interests and the domestic practices of late-Ottoman Damascus, will give you a taste of this elegant and fascinating world.

Behind the Scenes of a Traveling Exhibition

I’m pleased to announce Shangri La’s participation in Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture exhibition, which opens Feb. 24 at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah.  This exhibition includes 13 objects from Shangri La’s own collection, as well as over 200 other Islamic art pieces from around the world.
Rosewater sprinkler, Iran, 18-19th century, glass, mold-blown and free-blown (47.9)
Beauty and Belief offers unique access to Islamic culture, providing “a view from within” according to Project Director Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir. It is an introduction to the arts of Islamic cultures, featuring historical periods and geographic regions spotlighted by select calligraphy, figurative imagery and pattern. The exhibition creates a space in which to encounter the visual language of Islam, enabling visitors to engage in cross-cultural dialogue and gain a deeper understanding of past and present cultures.
Preparing for such a significant exhibition has been exciting and challenging for Shangri La Collections staff. One of the more labor-intensive parts of any traveling exhibition is preparing the objects and art for transport.
If you get nervous handing your suitcase over to the luggage handler at the airport because you’re not too sure what you’ll get back on the other side, then you’ve begun to understand the deep anxiety that accompanies art shipping. So how exactly do we get something as fragile as the glass Rosewater Sprinker (pictured above) from Honolulu to various museums on the mainland and back again, all without a scratch?! Very carefully …
Hanging textile, North Africa, c.1800, cotton (83.19)
Collections staff carefully move all the objects to a staging area for crate packing. Staff take precautions to spare the objects as much stress as possible. As you can see in the image below, the hanging textile has been mounted to a frame (much like the way you would frame a picture) for added structural support. The textile is then wrapped in Tyvek to further protect it in the crate as it travels.
Handlers support each side of a large North African hanging textile as it is moved to the staging area for packing.
Once the objects are assembled and prepared for packing, each object is placed in its custom-made crate, designed to support and protect it. Each object will travel within its designated crate for the remainder of the traveling exhibition.
Placing the hanging textile in its custom-made crate.
Folio from a Qur'an, Near East or North Africa, c. 900, ink and pigment on parchment (11.25)
In the above image you can see a custom-made crate that has been doubly insulated and cushioned to provide the folio inside as much protection as possible from temperature and humidity fluxuations, as well as any vibration due to the rigors of travel.
Traveling exhibition staging area wtih crates.
Given Shangri La’s unique location, even getting the Crown Movers truck down the driveway is a challenge.
The Crown Movers truck backing down the driveway.
Once the truck is in place the crates can be loaded onto the truck. From here the crates will be taken directly to the Honolulu airport, where they will be loaded onto a plane bound for Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, the crates will be transported to Provo, Utah, by private transit.
Crown Movers crew moving the now crated hanging textile.
Loading the last crate on the Crown Movers truck!
Next stop Honolulu airport!
For more information on the Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture exhibition, visit http://beauty-and-belief.byu.edu/. Look for additional blog posts from our collections manager, Maja Clark, as she hits the road next month to assist with the exhibition installation in Provo!