FINE art combines with maths, history, craftsmanship and scientific exploration in a glittering new show at Oxford’s most underrated museum.

The History of Science Museum is a world-class institution, but is often overlooked in favour of its blockbuster neighbours – the Ashmolean, Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers. But that is set to change with a striking new show which has opened to the public, as the Broad Street venue reopens its doors after lockdown.

‘Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld’ is a timely show providing a modern day interpretation on Islamic metalwork spanning the 11th to 16th centuries. It is accompanied by an online exhibition and contributions by the local community.

Through a series of beautiful and useful objects, the exhibition explores how the mix of cultures across the Islamic world influenced the creation of some of the finest metalwork ever produced.

Part of a national tour supported by Art Fund and in partnership with the Subject Specialist Network for Islamic Art and Material Culture, the exhibition features a stunning array of items on loan from London’s Courtauld.

Items –many of which have never been seen outside London before this tour – include a delicate candlestick made to a precise size and weight, rare brass bowls inlaid with silver and an elaborately designed 14th century bucket. They will be displayed alongside the museum’s own world-class

collection of scientific instruments from the Islamic world.

The exhibition will also examine the intricate designs and styles that made these metal pieces so renowned – and imitated – by civilisations around the globe. Signs of the zodiac, constellations, the planets and coats of arms all feature. Islamic metalwork is renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship and the skill behind this work will be showcased through on-screen content.

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The museum has picked out a woman’s metal handbag as the highlight of the show.

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The item, the only surviving example of its kind, was made in the early 14th century in Mosul, northern Iraq for an important lady based in the courtly circles of the Ilkhanid dynasty. Known as the Courtauld Bag. it is decorated with images of eight musicians playing instruments and shows the incredible metalworking skills passed down through generations.

To ensure as many people as possible can experience the exhibition, the History of Science Museum has responded to the current climate by creating a full online exhibition that will also include objects and stories not seen in the physical exhibition.

The museum has worked with Oxford-based volunteers who came as migrants from migrants from countries including Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Sudan, who have a cultural connection to the objects. Each provided their own perspective based on their personal and cultural knowledge.

Volunteer Jonathan Fruchter created an interactive digital programme through which online visitors can design their own Islamic-inspired patterns.

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He said: “I was amazed by the intricacy of the patterns of some of the objects. I decided to digitize the pattern on the handbag, and was inspired to create a symmetric-pattern-generating computer programme. The programme is based on the type of symmetry most common in Islamic art, and allows the user to design their own Islamic-influenced repetitive patterns with just a few lines and brush strokes.

“Mathematics is usually perceived as intimidating and very dry. I think that this exhibition is a great opportunity to share a bit of my knowledge and show people that maths can be beautiful and fun.”

Dr Silke Ackermann, Director of the History of Science Museum, said: “The show gives us insight into the craft and the science of Islamic metalworking. Our interpretation of the exhibition beautifully reveals how ideas and stories have travelled across time and territory, language and medium.

“Work to create this exhibition took place through the Covid-19 pandemic and we had to repeatedly pivot as we largely communicated through a new medium – online. It has certainly proved to be our most dynamic display yet.

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“We are delighted by the contribution made by the volunteers and grateful for The Courtauld’s generosity and their partnership – this collaboration has been an absolute joy and we have learnt a huge amount in the process.”

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Dr Alexandra Gerstein, McQueens, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Courtauld said: “We are thrilled to partner with Oxford’s History of Science Museum on the Precious & Rare tour and to be the first exhibition on display when the museum reopens to the public. The exhibition provides an opportunity for people to experience and enjoy some of the most treasured art works from both The Courtauld and History of Science Museum’s collections and to find out more about their fascinating history.”

* Visitors must pre-book a free timed ticket at

* A Cultures in Conversation online exhibition is live at