A Visit to the Iran National Museum, Tehran

By Gail Uilkema, NDSC Advisor, Docent, San Francisco Asian Art Museum (July 2018)

The Iran National Museum consists of two large buildings, one dedicated to pre-Islamic art and the other to Islamic art. The pre- Islamic building was designed by the French architect Andre Godard and completed in 1937. The complex dedicated to Islamic art was completed in 1972 and recently renovated. The architecture of both buildings reflects Persian culture. The vaulted entrance to the pre-Islamic building is designed like the entrance to many mosques and the cool white marble of the Islamic museum is reminiscent of the beautifully peaceful interiors of many Persian historic buildings.

    Tehran1       Tehran2       

                          Photos: Iran National Museum Buildings (courtesy of Wikipedia) 

The pre-Islamic museum contains pieces beginning from Neolithic times. The collection of early earthenware pots is quite varied. The glass and gold items demonstrate a high level of technological and artistic skill. The tiny Luristan bronzes from the early Iron Age are fanciful and intricate. On a much larger scale are monumental friezes and columns from the ancient ruins of Persepolis. The items on display provide an excellent preview and context for the places one visits in Iran.

rotated Sasanian gold necklace with king and flanking lions carved in lapis lazuli 5th c

Photo: Sasanian gold necklace with king and flanking lions carved inlapis lazuli, 5th c.

The exquisite Islamic museum houses many Korans/Qurans, the sacred religious text of Islam. They range in size from minuscule books to pages as large as six feet. There are many types of calligraphic script; my favorite is Kufic with its bold long strokes. Several of the pages are bordered with intricate floral designs and contain gold painted medallions at the chapter headings. 

I have always been intrigued by the way calligraphy morphed into ceramic designs. It started with written characters which became elongated to the point that they were no longer readable. Eventually some artists extended the lines to become the horns of a goat and this style became a typical motif on ceramics. Here, ceramics, textiles and metal work are all beautifully displayed.

Stylized goat

Photo: Stylized goat with calligraphic horns painted on ceramic bowl, circa 10th c.

Iran's rich cultural history has been unearthed by archaeologists from many different countries and therefore, many pieces are dispersed around the world in other collections. It is very special to have examples of Persian art in one place that reflect the continuity of Iran's artistic development.

Both times I have visited The Iran National Museum I was greeted by girls in blue school uniforms and white head scarves who were extremely eager to engage in conversation and were thrilled to take photographs of visitors from America. I experienced this friendliness towards strangers at each place I visited while touring the city.