By LEE LAWRENCE
The roof of the Louvre's new Islamic art department undulates like golden fabric gently lifted by the wind—a feat, considering it is made of steel and glass and weighs almost 150 tons. Filling a neoclassical courtyard, the addition that opened last fall tripled the space devoted to Islamic art and more than doubled the number of objects on view to almost 3,000, or about a sixth of the museum's works from the Islamic world.
In contrast to the spectacular architecture by Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, the installation is understated, an elegant version of open-storage: objects grouped in long glass cases; larger pieces—carved steles, inlaid doors, stone latticed windows—clustered on low pedestals; and architectural fragments affixed to partitions. The flooring is dark, the passageways plain and the lighting democratic, giving shards of earthenware as much attention as finely woven rugs from Iran, a jewel-encrusted dagger from Mughal India or 14th-century enameled blown-glass lamps from Egypt and Syria that are about as close to numinous as objects can get.
The only special treatment afforded masterpieces are smaller, more private cases. In one, a cylindrical ivory box barely 6 inches tall teems with intricate carvings. Made in 968 for the youngest son of the Caliph of Cordoba, it features men variously listening to music, plucking dates or nabbing eggs from a falcon's nest. Elsewhere, a lion attacks a bull, goats butt heads, men wrestle and no fewer than 17 falcons populate trees.
One of the other stand-alone cases shows off a 14th-century Syrian brass basin. Engravings and inlays of silver and gold depict hunting and court scenes, animals real and make-believe, enthroned kings and courtiers and, unusually, the name of the basin's maker, "master Muhammad ibn al-Zayn may he be forgiven," appears six times.
The installation also includes inspired touches. A beautifully restored and reassembled vault from 15th-century Egypt connects two galleries; listening posts offer recordings and translations of poetry; and a wall of colorful Turkish tiles from the 16th through 19th centuries greets us at the end like a grand finale of fireworks.
The Louvre's "Arts de Islam" places arts from the Islamic world on a par with those from the museum's seven other departments, including European "Paintings" and "Sculptures," "Ancient Egypt" and "Greek, Roman and Etruscan Antiquities." The museum thus presents Islam (which in French denotes a culture, not just a religion) as a civilization with distinctive artistic achievements. The first section begins with Arab conquests following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and takes us to the year 1000, by which time Arab caliphs held sway over an empire stretching from Afghanistan to Spain. The next two sections cover turbulent times. Between 1000 and 1250, Turkish converts gained control of Baghdad, and the Islamic world split into eastern and western spheres. There followed 250 years (1250-1500) during which Mongol invaders entered the mix and Islamic rule receded from Spain and spread to India. The final section focuses on the Persian Saffavid, Mughal Indian and Turkish Ottoman empires, whose artistic and scientific achievements between 1500 and 1800 dazzled Europeans.
The narrative tries to insert into this chronological account a sense of what makes a work "Islamic." An introductory panel, for example, discusses miniaturization in Islamic art, while other displays refer to the "genesis of an art" rooted in such precedents as partitioned designs of the late Roman Empire and deep-carved, vegetal designs associated with Samarra, Iraq. The first section then concludes by stressing writing as a unifying motif. In display after display, inscriptions proliferate on vessels, steles and architectural decorations, and we then walk downstairs and into the arts of the book. Here, works from various times and places illustrate thematic points—the popularity of fables and histories, the uses of figurative painting, the evolution of the Koran from a horizontal to vertical format.
By pulling books out of the chronological narrative, the curators reinforce an impression that they are building a definition of "Islamic art." But they don't, not really, for we immediately return to a progression of artistic developments in a world where trade and conquest trigger exchanges of aesthetics and technologies. And where responses were not uniform. Ceramists in 11th-century Iran and Syria, for example, developed a hard, white paste that could support colored, metallic glazes; potters in Spain and the Maghreb did not reproduce the paste but liked the sheen, exporting their own lusterware as far as Cairo. Much later it is obvious that Mughals and Saffavids developed distinctive styles.
Nevertheless, the Louvre successfully ties Islam to glorious achievements, effectively injecting art into the debate surrounding France's growing Muslim population and fear of Islamic fundamentalism. The overall cost of construction, conservation and restoration came to €98.5 million (about $131 million), of which the French government contributed €31 million. Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan added a total of €26 million and the Saudi Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation €17 million. Though this has raised some eyebrows, the museum shows no signs of having compromised or distorted history. And while it may seem curious that explanatory texts and labels are only in French, English and Spanish, this international labeling and absence of Arabic makes a powerful statement: These works belong to a shared world heritage just like those in the rest of the Louvre.
Not far across the river, the museum at the Institut du Monde Arabe complements the Louvre's galleries. Reconceived and reopened early last year, the museum looks at the cultures of 22 Arab states, beginning about 1,000 years before the birth of Islam and bringing the story into the present. It thus reminds us that Muslim cultures continue to produce art while also providing the backstory to many of the Louvre's exhibits. One gallery, for example, highlights scientific contributions and includes a wonderful display of astrolabes, with a video both informative and unobtrusive. Another gallery shows the evolution of Arabic writing, whose current alphabet was probably created in the late fifth century by Christian missionaries.
At one level, the museum showcases the breadth of Arab culture—from innovations in ceramics to charming clay water filters, from sumptuous textiles to poetry and music. At another, it strives to make the "Muslim other" more familiar by showing how Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all born and practiced in this region—have responded to such common impulses as wanting to express the sacred, facilitate prayer and disseminate holy writings. The region's religious pluralism comes through loud and clear, and we get to see non-Muslim works that display "Islamic style" hallmarks and some that don't, underscoring just how elusive the concept is. Finally, by floating objects in floor-to-ceiling cases so that, say, the figurine of a Christian saint is not visually cut off from a Muslim's prayer niche, the Institute offers a series of impressions—a counterpoint to the hours of meticulous examination the Louvre galleries demand.
Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared January 23, 2013, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Islam at the Louvre.