Coming to the end of its run, this exhibition of Bronze Age artifacts is well-named: “gaze” is about all one can do at objects for which there are few if any visual or artistic touch-points. No culture is entirely unique, but second-millennium BCE Sanxingdui comes as close as any. And without any written records, very little is known about the culture, the people of the Kingdom of Shu, the political entity to which these archaeological sites in Sichuan are believed to have belonged; “mysterious” is, for once, an apt description. There’s a lot of gazing; quite a lot of information; rather less understanding.

The history of the Kushan Empire long remained shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, Orientalist scholars in Calcutta deciphered the ancient Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts and used numismatic evidence to shed a first ray of light on the dynastic succession of the Kushans. Previously obscure and semi-legendary figures such as Vima Kadphises, Kanishka and Huvishka entered the annals of world history as rulers of an empire that stretched, in the first centuries CE, from Central Asia deep into the Indian subcontinent.

Putting 5,000 years of history on display is a challenge that Epic Iran’s organizers confronted head on. Juxtaposing a clay cylinder seal from the 2nd millennium and an abstract painting from the 21st century might leave visitors struggling to see the connection. Nevertheless, the strong thread that winds through this show is the excellence of craftsmanship, Persian honar, that appears in display after display. Iran’s tradition of craft, of masters and apprentices, of admiring past achievements in art, explains the surprising moments of recognition as one moves from one era to another in this chronologically-organized show.

The geometric patterning in Islamic tiles, carpets and textiles bespeak the Chief Architect, and how He brings forth the beauty of the physical world through eternal shapes. Implicit in these designs are dualities, heaven and earth, light and shadow, and of course male and female. The curating tradition of museums focuses on the male element in Islamic art. From the great monarchs like Iran’s Shah Abbas, Turkey’s Suleyman the Magnificent and India’s Shah Jahan, museums display their silk ceremonial gowns, jade-handled swords and brocaded riding boots. Objects made by or for women rarely figure in the exhibit cases.

The names given to early museums provide a clue to their original function: Peter the Great had his Wunderkammer, the Shah of Iran had his Ajayeb-khane, the Pasha of Egypt his Muthaf. All these words mean a home for marvels. The original museums did not contain paintings or sculpture. These were admired in palaces, homes or churches. The wonderful and rare, which had no place in the decoration of familiar spaces, required special locations, designated accordingly.