Caught in the Middle (East)

Caught in Qatar!

Caught in Qatar!

(This is my first essay that I have ever written on the creation of identity in the Middle East and the emergence of Museums in Qatar)

Caught in the Middle (East)

Discussion on the Middle Eastern Identity and creation of its museums

Summary: Caught between tradition and modernity, Qatar and other Gulf States decide to be innovative in building their museum strategies in the 21st century. The museums aim at constructing an individual and national identity, using various models that will be discussed. Only time will tell if these models were effective.

Keywords: Identity; National Museum; Qatar; Duality; Tradition; Modernity

The duality of a post-oil nation:

As my aircraft prepares its approach to land at the Doha International Airport, the screen automatically turns on. The video shows a young Qatari family in their traditional clothes, who through their activities provide an ignorant visitor like me an insight into their lifestyle. It includes a view of their luxurious modern apartment where they, together as a family, have breakfast; a business meeting with international delegates in an up-market hotel, where, to the amazement of his guests, the Qatari man frees a falcon; or an evening at the souk, where the couple enjoy a cup of traditional karak or coffee.

Welcome to Qatar, a country rooted deep in tradition and yet lives a modern way of life. This duality (Rice 1977, 78-87; see also Loftus 2013, 21-22) underlies the identity of the country and is seen everywhere- in the duality of sand and water, in Msheireb to the skyscrapers of West Bay and in its modern museums with traditional collections.

The recognizable reason for the duality to exist is the post-oil, rapidly transforming economies of the Middle East. Within a generation, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Dubai have transformed themselves into leading cities of the world, with record breaking high rises, gleaming sports cars and high end consumer goods that have become a part of life (Fromherz 2012, see also Picton 2010, 69-70). The development has also led to the influx of expatriates from all over the world, providing a multicultural environment where the locals find themselves in the minority. Fortunately, a few think tanks in this region have turned to the preservation of heritage and identity as one their main agendas for economic and cultural stability.

A national identity is the prime focus for any country engaged in a nation building exercise (Loftus 2012, 12). This identity takes various forms and includes establishing a flag, a national airline, a national university, building monuments of national importance or immortalizing national heroes. It also includes creating a national museum that collects and exhibits the archeological and ethnographic objects that define the nation.

 The creation of National Museums in the Middle East:

“Museums have been designated as an essential institution in developing national identity”- (Schmidt 2013, 287)

 Dr.Kavita Singh, Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, while addressing a conference in Abu Dhabi, stated that the first step for any country towards nation building is to create a museum (Doherty 2012, 183).

The 70s saw the museum boom in the Gulf region (Bouchenaki 2011, 93; Exell & Rico 2013, 7). As the British withdrew and new nation states were formed, the foremost agenda was to create a national identity that would unite the population as citizens. Bahrain, under the patronage of Sheikha Haya Ali Al Khalifa, established the first museum in the dining room of a Royal Air Force base and showcased the collection under the sections of Archeology and Ethnography, exhibiting traditional crafts and costumes, pearl diving traditions and other historic objects.  This museum was further expanded post independence and became a blueprint of the new National Museum of Bahrain (Aubry 2013, 68-69), which opened its doors in 1988.

A similar approach was taken in the United Arab Emirates when they established the Al-Ain National Museum under the patronage of H.E. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who had a special interest in saving the past for future generations (Al Nayadi 2011, 27). With the Danish archeologists working on various digs, U.A.E. discovered a rich past, which could be traced back to the Stone and Bronze Age (Kazmi 2008), establishing an identity that’s originates from this period and continues to the modern age. The museum was housed in Al-Ain fort, a palace that belonged to H.E. Sheikh Zayed and thus, aligning the country’s rich heritage with the lineage of the ruler.

In Qatar, the National Museum was inaugurated in 1975 by Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani. He chose the Old Emirati Palace as the location for this museum because, not only the Palace was the administrative center and the residence of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim bin Al Thani, but also Sheikh Khalifa’s birthplace. It also aligned the Al Thani lineage with that of the history of the country (Al-Mulla 2014) as well as  certified his rule over Qatar, even though he wasn’t a direct descendant of the previous ruler. Surprisingly, the museum was built without a collection in mind, which, in fact was collected from different ruling families of Qatar much later (Al-Mulla 2014; see also Rice 1977, 78-87). The museum also connected the rich pearling history with the post-oil riches by a purpose built lagoon inside the museum complex.

It is evident from the short history of the region that the ruling families were the first to take up the question of identity and heritage in the postcolonial era. There were many reasons for doing so- prominently to establish the political agenda of the rulers with the one of the nation (Exell 2013: 3). By preserving the past, which mostly consisted of private collections of the royal family, the oil magnates came forth as educated and visionary personalities that joined the elite club of museum creators around the world (Cameron 1971, 66; see also MacDonald 2006, 81-97). It also concretized their role in the history of the country, as the museums often narrated their personal histories with the archeological finds. These ruling families became the past, present and the future of their nations.

Recent developments in the Gulf:

The last four decades has seen immense growth in the Middle East and its come with its own wake up call. With finite natural resources, the countries have started looking at other models like education, finance and more recently cultural tourism as future models of sustainability (Doherty 2012, 184). Acclimatized to living the ‘imported’ life, it was inevitable that the museum model would be flown in as well (Loftus 2013, 13).

Bahrain was one of the first to adopt cultural tourism as an urban regeneration model where ‘the past would rub shoulders with the twenty-first century’ (Aubry 2013, 70-72). Bahrain’s approach included preserving and converting heritage buildings like Abdullah Al-Zayed Press Heritage House, and opened up museums and galleries which include a revamped National Museum, a museum at the World Heritage Site of Qal’at Al Bahrain designed by Zaha Hadid and a contemporary art museum that will expose the citizens to a global culture and serve the future generations (Aubry 2013, 91).

Sharjah was one of the forerunners in the creation of museums and the Sharjah Heritage Authority manages sixteen museums catering to Islamic culture, history, calligraphy, education, and automobiles, amongst others. Sharjah’s success and popularity owes a lot to the acclaimed Sharjah Art Biennale, a contemporary art platform that was established a few years ago and attracts thousands of visitors, especially during Art Dubai. Often called as the Cultural Capital of the Middle East (Bouchenaki 2011), Sharjah used a diverse museum model, which included preservation, restoration and rebuilding heritage and creating festivals that create its own individual identity (Picton 2010, 69-71).

If one Guggenheim wasn’t enough to make it a cultural destination, the rulers of Abu Dhabi took the franchisee model a bit too far, and imported not only the Guggenheim and Frank Gehry, but also the Louvre with Jean Nouvel to establish emblem buildings on the Saadiyat Island. The big plan also includes a National Museum designed by Norman Foster, as well as a Center for Performing Arts designed by Zaha Hadid (Atkinson 2011). Inspired by the ‘Bilbao effect’ (Baniotopoulou 2001), Abu Dhabi’s approach, backed by multi-cultural interpretations by American, British and the French minds, may establish a global identity but will it satisfy the need to create a home grown identity?

Qatar’s approach to establish its identity:

The Middle East is going through a cultural Renaissance as countries, through innovative museum models are creating their individual identities. The Qatar Museums Authority approached identity as multi-layered, an identity that would identify its citizens as Islamic, as Arabs and as a Qatari. Its ‘top-down’ approach that was seen during the seventies in the establishment of the National Museum can be seen in the layers of identity, that led to the identification of four voices prevailing in the country: Creation of an Islamic identity through Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) (Eakin 2011), setting up Mathaf Museum of Modern Arab Art for a pan-Arab identity, the opening of the National Museum to focus on Qatari history and finally, at the lowest level, giving a voice to the ‘others’.

By opening the MIA first, Qatar identifies itself first as an Islamic nation. At a time, especially post 9/11, when Islam was being discussed globally, Qatar created a platform for debates and conferences on Islam, as a dialogue for peace and harmony in the global arena. Qatar came forward as a messenger of peace in global politics, a role it has actively pursued with its neighbors and within the Arab world. These conferences created a suitable stage for cultural diplomacy and launch the MIA in 2008, and thus, becoming a center for Islam through the arts in the Middle East (Al-Mulla 2013, 166-67). By creating an emblem building that speaks of Islamic vocabulary and acquiring an envious collection, the message was clear…Qatar had arrived.

Within two years, Qatar focused on the second layer of its identity- that of being an Arab and through Mathaf aimed at creating a pan-Arab identity. Unlike other Museums of Modern Art in the region that mostly focused on artists within their boundaries, Mathaf became a voice for artists with an Arab history (Al-Qassemi 2013). By holding exhibitions from its permanent collections as well as inviting artists to do special exhibitions, Mathaf has initiated a dialogue that has attracted criticism from the locals and applauds from the West. Other exhibitions, like that of Murakami and Damien Hirst by the Public Art Department, also makes one think if these are meant to shock or to educate the locals. Whatever the reason may be, this has created a dialogue in the local community, a result that Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani envisioned (Al Thani 2010).

Opening in 2015-2016, the Jean Nouvel designed National Museum of Qatar will be inaugurated in the third phase of the Qatar museum strategy. The education department, in the absence of a physical space, has been conducting workshops in schools and participating in events like the dhow festival, to continually remind and instill the idea of nationalism and identity. Their upcoming exhibition in mid December 2013, titled ‘A Leader’s Legacy’ is based on the life of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim bin Al Thani and will showcase objects and digital media from the collection of the National Museum. Not only this reminds the population of the legacy of the Al-Thani rule but also keeps them rooted to their tradition in the absence of museum.

The ‘Other’ Voices:

A nation of the 21st century cannot sustain itself on a top-down approach. For it to be successful, it has to acknowledge the ‘other’ voices that may belong to its history by representing them in the making of national identity (MacDonald 2006, 4)

One such voice is created by the Msheireb Arts Center (MAC). Under the offices of Msheireb Properties, that is responsible for the regeneration of Msheireb, once a prosperous suburb of Doha, the ‘Sadaa Al Thikrayat’ or the ‘Echo Memory Project’ explores, narrates and establishes through architecture and found objects, both the heritage of the Qataris in the 1940s as well as the immigrant inhabitants of the 70s and 80s, who have played an active role in the making of Modern Qatar but somehow were neglected from its history. It has provided archeologists to reaffirm the importance of documenting the recent past, which may lead to new theories and maybe new histories (Barbour 2012; Fox 2012). MAC is actively involved in various community-led projects by visiting curators and artists, who work with many migrant labors to unravel the unwritten histories of this area.

Another project that is creating a stir in the Qatari community is the Bayt Jalmood Museum. Slavery existed in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, and mostly in the pearl diving trade. Hardly spoken about in Qatar and almost a forgotten past, the museum will provide a voice to the ‘black’ Qatari, who are omitted from the history of the Al-Thani’s. Some musical instruments belonging to the African tribal traditions have been discovered and collected by the National Museum of Qatar, but haven’t been labeled as African (Rice 1977, 78-87; see also Al-Mulla 2014), thus, questioning the museum authority and whose story does it reflect.

Sheikha Mozah under Qatar Foundation realizes the importance of creating an identity of the ‘others’ and of a difficult past (Schmidt 2012, 294) even if it means ruffling a few feathers. She is catering to another segment of the society, which may not have the same voice, or the same history as narrated by the Al-Thani, even though they were a part of it (Taylor 2012, see also Hawkins 2012). Though considered controversial by many locals, and content that primary consists of oral histories, the museum has a tough task ahead of it. At a time when human rights are eyeing Qatar’s contemporary labor practices (Taylor 2012), will the Slavery Museum create alliances or create a fissure in the society remains to be seen.

The Lone Crusader:

A museum that does not feature in any of the ‘voices’ established during the essay is the Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani museum, on the outskirts of Doha. The Sheikh started building his collection very early in his life, a passion that he inherited from his father. With the aim to preserve the fast losing identity of Qatar (Exell 2013, 14), the Sheikh collection objects of historical importance, as well as objects of everyday use. It includes artifacts from the Ottoman and British empires, early weaponry and armory, chests and coins, textiles, manuscripts, cars and even an airplane. Intimately curated and personally displayed, the Sheikh Faisal Museum could be termed as a true Qatari museum, even though it exhibits an identity of a privileged citizen.


Professor Naseer Rabbat, at a talk organized by Doha Architecture Forum on Identity, Heritage and Culture, mentioned that identity is constructive; it constructs itself as we live, learn and adapt to a changing world. As we make an attempt to understand the identity of the Gulf and in more depth, of Qatar’s, it would be correct to state that the Qatari identity is in the making, and caught in the middle of tradition and modernity.

Museums are not new to this region, and traditionally countries have shared a similar identity and characteristics (Al Nayadi 2011, 27), including archeological finds, ethnographic cultures, language and colonial history, and more recently a similar post oil economic growth. And yet, each country is now trying to establish an original model for its cultural renaissance, trying to tap into known and forgotten pasts, before it is lost to modernity (Al Thani 2010).

But whose identity is being represented in these museums? Is the identity presented to the viewer the true identity of the nation (Taylor 2012)? There are many arguments to this and I think not. The national identity that exists today was in the first place prepared by the ruling families of these countries, who considered their heritage as the nation’s history and purposely sanitized this identity to suit their needs. Secondly, the first few national museums in this region were established in consultation with Michael Rice & Co, a British consultant who designed and interpreted the museum spaces from what could have been a western point of view. The same practice continues even today, as most of the museums professional in the region are expatriates (Atkinson 2011, 28-32; Picton 2010, 77).

Thirdly, various communities were purposely left out of these histories. These communities include the slaves, who were offered citizenship in the mid twentieth century and migrant workers and laborers, who for decades have contributed to the country’s development. Through projects like the Msheireb Arts Center and the Bayt Jalmood Museum, a new ‘bottom up’ approach is visible, however one can question if these competing pasts will ever be regarded as high art or convert events of shame into events of pride (Crooke 2006, 171). The efforts of Sheikha Mozah should be appreciated, who realizes that ‘presenting history is full of potholes and land mines’ (McAcity); the simple reason that they do not fall under the Qatar Museum Authority umbrella signifies that they will never be considered a part of their identity.

The duality that exists in the Middle East including Qatar may be here to stay. The Al Riwaq contemporary space is placed next to the MIA, a statement that shows that tradition and modernity walk hand in hand. The exhibition schedule shows exhibitions like the ‘Hajj- A journey through Art’ and ‘Mal Lawal’, which are directed more towards shaping the local identity, while Al Riwaq exhibits ‘Relics’ by Damien Hirst that is much more popular with the expat community. The number of visitors to the museums may not have risen as fast as the number of museums itself but it has led to a dialogue in the local community of what is theirs and what’s not. And by the looks of it, this new ‘voice’ will answer the question of identity in the not-so-distant future, Inshallah!


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Online YouTube Reference:

Sheikha Al Mayassa on Ted X, December 2010

This entry was published on February 15, 2014 at 08:37. It’s filed under Art, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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