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What can we learn about the Midd​l​e East at the museums that make cultures tangible?

Inspirations from Doha in Qatar and Muscat in Oman

Development of intercultural sensitivity and competence is a life-long learning experience. There are many ways to dive into new cultures. One of them is the direct contact with artefacts and the stories they tell that can be found in various museums. Let me share with you three examples, from three museums I visited this spring in the Middle East to illustrate the need for protection of our human cultural heritage and the possibilities how different layers of culture can be made more accessible to those who want to see, listen to and experience new realities. By exploring the treasures of art and culture we can recognize the relativity of truths in order to adapt “multiple perspectives” rather than “objective truth”. Museums can support the visitors in not only learning something new about different cultures but also understanding the cultural background of decisions made currently in the politics and economy. Moreover, they can support the audience to learn to live with conflicting points of view and promote dialog for better mutual understanding. 

The collections I mention in this blog are able to trigger reflection and suggest alternative ways of looking at the cultural heritage at the museums in Doha and, to some extent, in Muscat. All of the museums opened their doors to the visitors in the 21stcentury and mark the desire to display the cultural heritage of the Middle East in this corner of the world: The Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha opened in 2008, The National Museum in Doha – 2019 and the Museum in Muscat in 2016.

Museum of Islamic Art in Doha

LEARNING ABOUT OUR COMMON RESPONSIBILITY FOR PROTECTION at the MIA in DOHA

Heritage is what defines our identity. No wonder that harm to the heritage has got vast psychological and social consequences. Currently, when the spending on weapons is rising every day, the consciousness of the value of cultural roots and their tangible and intangible signs are more important then ever. Especially, the war areas face the brutality towards people and towards their cultural heritage. I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes while visiting the Exhibition “Syria Matters” at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. Over the past seven years, people in Syria have experienced one of the worst tragedies in the history of 21stcentury and in the living memory. This splendid-country with its cities of Damascus, Aleppo and the heritage site of Palmyra, to mention just a few treasures of culture, has been vastly destroyed. Photographs showing unique sites before and after this overwhelming destroy seem to be screaming: “There are no winners in wars – we all have lost”. Not only have we lost an important part of humanity, but also treasures of cultural heritage that have been telling stories of human creativity, the richness of life and value of the past. The continuing destruction affects all of us.

Exhibition Syria matters

Syrian refugees forced to leave their home country carry these images in their hearts. Their stories of belonging will pass the longing for seeing the beloved places onto the next generations. The documentation of the Syrian treasures of culture is the last possibility to get an idea what some important places looked like but it cannot replace the aesthetic and psychological value of experiencing them “face to face”. 

It is not always the cataclysm of war that destroys precious cultural goods. As Nelson Mandela put it in one sentence: “It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it”. Building the future without looking back at the past is like pouring water into the vessel with a hole in it. Those trying to do so will not succeed.  

In the context of the stories of belonging, it is crucial to remember, that artefacts, pieces of art, precious buildings, written sources, and last but not least stories we share do not belong to us. It is us who belong to them. We have the responsibility to take care of them and pass them on. With this in mind, I would like to rise the question “What would you like to keep for the next generations?”

In the museum’s case the value of the continuum of the cultural heritage can be seen not only in the choice of temporary expositions, such as “Syria matters”, but also in the display of the rich collection and the architecture of the MIA. The Pritzker Prize winner I. M. Pei (best known for his pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris) got inspired by the architecture of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo while designing the building and built it upon the rich Islamic tradition. 

Museum of Islamic Art in Doha

“The origin of Islamic art begins with a desire to establish a distinctive identity” – we can read on one of the text panels in the museum. “Rapid territorial expansion, trade, and innovation each left their mark, but Islamic art has retained a unique visual language through the centuries. Ranging geographically from Spain to China and spanning nearly a thousand of years in time, our collection reflects the diversity of many cultures and ideas within one civilization” – continues the description in one of the galleries. And indeed, the collection embraces unique examples of artefacts from many corners of the Middle East, Turkey, Asian Islamic countries and Arabic Spain. It is a wonderful example how you can gain multiple perspectives on one civilisation.

National Museum in Doha

LEARNING ABOUT THE POWER OF VISUAL STORYTELLING AT THE DESERT ROSE in DOHA

Similarly, the architecture of The National Museum of Qatar puts the emphasis on the cultural heritage – this time however, not the human design tradition, but the influence of the natural surrounding. The visionary DESERT ROSE housing the National Museum of Qatar emerges from a desert like a precious flower put at the feet of contemporary skyscrapers. In the heart of the museum, there is the Royal Palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani – the heritage site reminding of the past of the country, whose economy has been based on three equally precious natural resources – pearls during the Roman Empire centuries and oil and gas that have guarantied prosperity since mid 1940s until today. 

National Museum in Doha

The architecture of the desert rose is the opus of never ending surprises. As its architect Jean Nouvel describes the experience on his website: “The idea was to create contrasts, spring surprises. You might, for instance, go from one room closed-off pretty high up by slanting disk to another room with a much lower intersection. This produces something dynamic”. 

The dynamism is also visible in the stories of belonging told in the three sections of the display:

The Beginningswith an extensive multimedia display devoted to geology, archeology and natural environment of Qatar

Life in Qatar with breathtaking expositions of daily life items shown in the cultural context explores the history of the country before the discovery of oil. All senses are addressed in this part of the exposition and so the visitors can listen to stories told by local men and women, listen to the poetry and songs, see and touch different objects and smell fragrances. 

The Modern History of Qatar reveal the rise of the country within the last decades. 

Most importantly, the museum gives voice to the people of Qatar. Men and women alike share stories of the past and give insights into what it was like to carry water, move from the coast to the desert after hot summers and live accordingly to the changing seasons. They recall challenges of pearl diving and offer a glimpse into every day activities and festivities. 

Use of Storytelling 

The compelling storytelling approach engages all the senses and the spirit of the long maritime tradition and the desert omnipresent in the country. The sea and the desert are present in every corner of the building, which is a real homage to the dominating landscapes of Qatar. The contrast of the two life spheres serves a better understanding of people’s mentality, their past and their desires for the future. And so, the exposition of life in hot sands of the desert is followed by the display of wooden dhows – Qatar’s boats used for trading, fishing and pearl diving. A unique atmosphere of sharing stories is the result of the projection of multiple movies, such as “People and their Own Voices” 2018 by Jon Kane, “Life in Al Barr” (Desert) as well as “Al Zubarah” – both films made in 2017 by Abderrahmane Sissako. One of the most touching stories is “Nafas” (The Breathe) 2014 by Mira Nair, telling the fate of a young pearl diver. Only after watching this movie, the value of pearls gets a new dimension. It gets visible how much the pearl divers risked their lives to collect these jewelry treasures. The enormous screens showing the movies are flanked by the display of costumes and musical instruments associated with the celebration of Al Guffal, marking the return of the pearl divers at the end of the season. 

National Museum in Doha, Children’s section

One of the museum highlights are children sections, inviting the youngest visitors to try out filling a bucket with virtual water in a well, reminding of old wells in the oases to make them aware not only of the challenges of the nomad lives but also of the climate challenges of today’s world. The virtual water is “used” to fill in a bath tube or a dishwasher. That way the experiential section contributes to the rise of awareness of water use nowadays. 

National Museum in Muscat

LEARNING ABOUT INTANGIBLE CULTURE AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM IN MUSCAT

Similarly to the pieces of art and traditional artefacts, music and dancing – the intangible heritage – tell the stories of belonging at the National Museum of Muscatin Oman. One of its exposition rooms is even called Intangible Heritage Gallery and focuses on the vast collection of audio and video to make music and traditional dances accessible to the audience. One of the walls of this gallery is used for the display of traditional music instruments, so that the sense of sight is additionally addressed. TheNational Museum was established under a Royal Decree and built in 2016 opposite to the Sultan Palace in the heart of the city. 

National Museum in Muscat, Intangible Heritage Gallery

The museum displays its collection on two floors in galleries communicating the focus of the collection. Among others:

  • Splendors of Islam Gallery
  • Oman and the World Gallery
  • The Renaissance Gallery

This National Museum is very traditional regarding the exposition, nevertheless with its emphasis on the intangible heritage it creates a real eye opener for many visitors.

National Museum in Muscat, Entrance

Culture can be perceived with all senses and museums can and should play an important role in making cultural heritage accessible to those who wish not only to know but also to understand and experience cultures.

The above examples show that there are multiple ways to make cultures tangible and it is the highest to make them accessible to local and foreign audiences, to enhance understanding of the past and the present events. Some of them address different senses, some show multiple perspectives and all of them pursue one goal: Show the cultural heritage and make sure it prevails for the future generations.