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The Ambassador

Curator Aimée Froom ’93MA opens doors to Islamic worlds


Ceramic art tiles with blue and white design.

Photo: Thomas R. DuBrock

Aimée Froom ’93MA was on her way to a quiet career in a little-known corner of the art world. Newly hired by the Brooklyn Museum as Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art, she had completed her first day on the job and was headed to Manhattan to defend her doctoral dissertation. The morning was cool and still, appropriate for the launch of a niche career. But the date was September 11, 2001, and the events that followed would infuse her work with a purpose and urgency she never imagined.

A decade prior, as an undergrad studying medicine and French literature, Froom paid a visit to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where she discovered the dazzling world of Ottoman Turkish pottery. Deeply inspired, she considered changing her course of study to Islamic art and searched for a graduate program to support her budding interest. Her research brought her to Walter Denny, distinguished UMass professor of art history and renowned Islamic art scholar. “My meeting with Dr. Denny really tipped the balance, in terms of going on to study Islamic art,” she recalls. “He was so generous with his time and knowledge, particularly as one of the most respected international scholars in the field.” Denny encouraged Froom to pursue her graduate work at UMass Amherst, where he mentored her in Islamic art and architecture and gave her the public speaking skills she’d need as a lifelong ambassador in the field. “Walter has been a treasure for generations of art historians,” she says.

After earning a master’s degree at UMass and a doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Froom landed at the Brooklyn Museum, where world events gave her a platform to introduce Islamic art to audiences seeking to understand unfamiliar cultures. Twenty years later, her mission is unchanged and her passion untempered. “There is deep historical significance to the art and architecture of Islamic countries, and after 9/11, I sensed that people were very eager to learn,” she explains. “In fact, I feel I’ve been lecturing and sharing information ever since—and I’m very grateful to do so.”

We give museumgoers a window into an entirely new world

In 2014, Froom’s career path brought her to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where she serves as curator of arts of the Islamic worlds. Since that time, she has increased the museum’s permanent Islamic art exhibits from two to four galleries and is embarking upon a major gallery expansion for 2023. She forged deep connections with Houston’s Muslim communities including, among others, the Ismaili Council for the Southwestern United States, the Arab-American Educational Foundation, Asia Society Texas Center, and the Islamic Arts Society, and strengthened partnerships with Rice and the University of Houston. However, Froom is keenly aware of an audience for whom Islamic art is foreign and unfamiliar. And for them, she builds exhibits that draw meaningful cultural connections. “We give museumgoers a window into an entirely new world,” she says. “For example, Islamic art so often transforms everyday objects into extraordinary works of art. You might have a Samanid bowl that is painstakingly inscribed with proverbs, or a prayer rug that looks like a gorgeous Italian Renaissance painting—there’s such luxury in these common objects, and people lived among this beauty.”

In a recent exhibit, Froom positioned a 19th-century Ottoman Turkish lute within sight of a 17th-century Italian still life featuring near-identical instruments. Through this juxtaposition, she hoped to ignite conversations about links across cultures. “Lutes weren’t invented in the Islamic world, but they were literally walked into Spain by Arab musicians,” she notes. “My hope is that people see our shared history, the common heritage we have—in this case, through musical instruments and decorative patterns.” Enthused, Froom launches into a detailed explanation of the lute’s wood inlays. She notes the technique’s long history and its path from culture to culture before stopping herself mid-sentence. “I’m sorry, I’m giving you an impromptu art lecture,” she says, looking abashed. For any art lover or citizen of the world, no apology is needed; a simple “shukran” (thank you in Arabic) will do.

Coffee with a Curator - Aimée Froom