“Especially given the current civil unrest in Syria and reports of damage to cultural sites, we hope the Damascus Room will open a window on the country’s extraordinary cultural heritage,” says Deborah Pope, executive director for the museum (as quoted in the Honolulu Weekly, July 18, 2012).
July 8, 2012: A newly restored room at Doris Duke's Shangri La estate provides a rare glimpse of the opulent lifestyle of Syria's well-to-do during the late 18th century.
The Damascus Room, which will open to tours starting Wednesday after years of conservation work, is also further testament to the lengths the late heiress and philanthropist went to indulge her passion for Islamic art.
Duke approached Georges Asfar and Jean Sarkis — art dealers with whom she had worked in the late 1930s — to help reassemble a historic Syrian home interior at her Black Point estate. Nine cases of ornate wood panels were shipped from Beirut in November 1954, arriving in Honolulu two months later, accompanied by detailed drawings and instructions for rebuilding the paneled room, which was finally installed in a guest room adjoining the foyer in 1958.
Every surface of woodwork covering the walls, ceiling, doors and cabinets in the room is adorned in elaborate floral and geometric patterns in paint, metal leaf or raised gesso ornamentation — a decorative technique known as ‘ajami — along with flourishes of calligraphy in gold paint.
Typical of an affluent household of the late Ottoman Empire, there are luxury trade items on display, including ceramic plates and silk velvets from Turkey, glassware from Iran and Europe, and four enameled hanging lamps from North Africa.
Visitors to the Damascus Room will be encouraged to sit and absorb the exotic ambience, perhaps imagining themselves as honored guests sharing a hookah with wealthy hosts while enjoying Middle Eastern music and delicacies.
"Visitors will have a different experience in that room than in the entire house," said Keelan Overton, curator of Islamic art at Shangri La. "They'll have a moment to explore the room on their own terms. They can read about the conservation process or about Duke's travels in Syria.
"This also marks the first time that we'll be displaying original archives from the collection, documentation that relates how the room came to be through cablegrams, letters and receipts from the 1930s and photographs from 1954."
Before restoration, the room was part of the old staff office wing, according to Deborah Pope, executive director of Shangri La. She said the long process started in 2004 after the repair of a roof leak that damaged ceiling paint and gesso surfaces.
"We had a small symposium workshop with other conservators, scholars and curators familiar with the Ottoman house interiors from Damascus," she said. "It was a far-flung group who shared information with us in helping lay out a plan of attack in conserving and treating the room.
"There was much photographing and documenting over the next three summers, done with the help of conservators and graduate interns from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation."
Originally decorated in bright colors, the wooden panels darkened over the centuries as a result of routine cleaning and varnishing, Overton said.
"The look of the room is golden brown," she said. "Originally the ceiling and wood panels would've been extremely bright — bold primary colors, red, blue and green, offset with white panels with calligraphy rendered in gold."
Pope said this is the first time a new room has been opened for the regular Shangri La tours since the public was granted access to the estate in 2002.
"I've never seen anything like this in Hawaii. … Every square inch of the room is exceptionally beautiful," she said.
Shangri La is one of the few museums in the world to exhibit Syrian interiors. Others include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin.
The Damascus Room will be included in Shangri La's guided tours starting July 11th.
SHANGRI LA TOURS
» Where: Meet at Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 S. Beretania St.
» When: Wednesdays-Saturdays
» Cost: $20 Hawaii residents (free on first Wednesday monthly), $25 nonresidents
» Reservations: 532-DUKE (3853) or 866-DUKE-TIX (385-3849)