Having something incredible but not being able to show it off for whatever reason can be an agonizing feeling. It’s like having a secret that you desperately want to blurt out. So one can only imagine the experience of those who work at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is known for having modern masterworks in its collection, mainly by American and European artists like Warhol, Giacometti, Magritte, and Duchamp. Some claim it probably has the greatest Western art collection outside Europe and North America. However, much of the collection has been locked away from public view for decades.
The museum had been the brainchild of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife, Farah. After Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government ordered much of the museum’s collection packed away and kept from view to avoid offending conservative Islamic sensibilities. While many of the pieces will probably never be seen again, the government has allowed occasional exhibitions of select works by Western artists. The first of these exhibitions was staged in 1999, while the most recent one opened in June. One hundred thirty works by thirty-four Western artists are displayed in an exhibit on minimalism. The museum staff is very brave for putting on this kind of exhibition in a political environment where it may not be safe. The new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi is a religious hardliner who frequently rails against the influence of Western culture.
Unfortunately, the museum is being shut down temporarily, but not by the government. Rather, the problems come from something far smaller. Amid this incredibly popular exhibition, silverfish and other insects have been spotted on a Bernd and Hilla Becher photograph, resulting in the museum closing for fumigation. Thankfully, the museum claims that the paper-eating insects did not cause any damage to the works. Hopefully, now that the fumigation is complete, visitors can safely return to the museum.
So far, over seventeen thousand people have visited the museum for this exhibition, making it the most popular show the museum has put on to date. Despite Raisi’s election and the curtailment of social and cultural freedoms, the arts are flourishing in Iran in certain ways. Iran is a particularly young country, with over half the population being under the age of 30. Even though the government has been more restrictive recently, young people are increasingly turning to the Internet and social media to access the arts both in Iran and beyond.