It is truly an exceptional opportunity for me to experience Doha, the capital city of Qatar, in the time of the rapid development of all Gulf area. Constant progress includes also impressive cultural offer. Museums, which are one of the sites of ongoing process of Qatari national identity construction, are not an exception. In this blog post, I would like to write about Museum of Islamic Art, an exceptional museum in many ways. Before doing so, I will provide brief introduction to better understand the Qatari cultural sphere.
Qatar is a tiny Gulf state, which gained independence from British protection in 1971. The country is in the process of rapid growth, and changes are monthly seen in every corner of Doha. On the one hand, there are many luxury hotels, spas, world class restaurants, malls and architecturally interesting and quite unusual buildings, and on the other, there are variety of options to shop in lively souqs and markets as well as explore several excellent museums and other vibrant cultural places. Qatar is still reliant on oil wealth however, the state wants to decrease its dependence on oil exports and establish a country as a major regional and international cultural and educational center.
In her article, UCL Qatar lecturer Karen Exell suggests that collecting and displaying (I would say in the western style) are something new in Qatar – these practices have been in operation since the middle of the 20th century. They have been defined by very particular socio-cultural context. Firstly, Qatari nationals are a minority in their own country (they represent around 12 per cent of the population; total population estimated in 2016: 2,383,705 people). The majority of the population consists of skilled and unskilled expatriate workers with residence status only. Secondly, unprecedented rapid development as well as increase in personal wealth connected with oil exploitation, change their ways of life in just a few decades. Consequently, there are many private collections which serve as a point to negotiate collectors’ own relationships with modernity. They show mostly traditional ways of life and express nostalgia about lost times as well as fear to lose traditional values. One of the extraordinary private collections can be seen in the Sheikh Faisal Museum (opened in 1998).
First museum in the western model, Qatar National Museum, was established in 1975, shortly after Qatar gained independence. This museum is now closed due to reconstruction and will reopen in 2018 (check out its outstanding architecture by French architect Jean Nouvel). Many museums and galleries were opened in the last two decades, for instance Museum of Islamic Art (2008), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Contemporary Art (2010), Msheireb Museums (2015); Al Riwaq Art Space (1998), Al Markhiya Gallery (2008). All museums and galleries offer free entry. The lead organization for museums in Qatar is Qatar Museums (2005) which is responsible for development of museums and art galleries as well as restoration of archeological sites. It also organizes and sponsors various cultural events.
The Museum of Islamic Art is located on the Corniche, very beautiful waterfront promenade, on the man-made island sixty metres from the shore. It was designed by the prominent Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, and that cooperation immediately attracted a lot of attention and media coverage in the West. The building truly is spectacular. It is a clear example of engaging with modernity, however strong connections with the past were required. In the museum’s catalogue I have read about architect’s quest for the “essence” of Islamic architecture – he defines it through the play of light and shadows, “where sunlight brings to life powerful volumes and geometry plays a central role” (p. 26).
The extraordinary collections of the MIA are not large in number – or at least curators did not put the majority of the objects on the display. Exhibition rooms are spacious and comfortable, with many chairs around to take a rest if necessary. In order to make every object seen and appreciated, they used the lightning to create the atmosphere of uniqueness of each of them in the otherwise dark rooms without natural lights. Exhibition includes metalwork, ceramics, jewellery, woodwork, textiles, coins and glass. It is clear that the display was created in the manner of orthodox Western exhibition design – on the basis of consideration, that the object tells its story by itself.
Museum collection is very diverse. Objects geographically range from Spain to Central Asia and India, and in time from the 7th to the 19th century. They come from both secular and religious aspects of diverse worlds. As it is written on the exhibition, their collection “reflects the diversity of many cultures and ideas within one civilization”. This is a great perspective for me, however what I really missed, was the context, which would explain the historical and geographical backgrounds of the items. In addition I also craved for more information about the importance of exhibited objects as well as background of objects’ selection.
This experience leads me to the question: who is the museum’s target audience? What is the connection with the local population – especially because MIA is very western styled museum? Of course MIA expresses its openness to people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds – by the way, check their online tours – but it seems for me that the main aim of the museum is not to include and communicate to local audience. In my opinion, they want to impress the West with both the amazing architecture and acceptable version of the Islamic world. Namely, without providing any context, museum exhibition excludes any connections to politics. With doing so, the museum demonstrates that “Islam has continually been a tolerant and progressive force, adopting, adapting and passing on ideas within and across its borders” (catalogue about MIA, p. 9). This quote clearly shows, that a heritage is – like always, but here perhaps more evidently – a political tool to emphasize selected interpretation.