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Exhibition

Qatar’s new museum celebrates the country’s biodiversity, cultural heritage, and what’s to come

National Museum of Qatar

Sheikha Amna bint Abdulaziz bin Jassim Al-Thani, director
Museum Park Street, Doha, Qatar

The small desert nation of Qatar underwent a crisis on 5 June 2017. Neighboring countries imposed a blockade that turned it into a virtual island, surrounded on three sides by water and on one side by hostile territory, isolating it politically and eliminating the transport lines that previously supplied 80% of its food. Qatar’s response has been to develop domestic resources and consolidate its national identity. The 28 March opening of the National Museum of Qatar (NMoQ) in the capital city, Doha, served as a defiant celebration of that identity as an open Muslim society.

Designed by world-renowned architect Jean Nouvel, the stunning building that houses the NMoQ is convincingly modeled after the desert rose, a fantastically shaped mineral. Enormous discs intersect and project unpredictably, creating intriguing spaces that demand exploration and recall the twisting alleys and courtyards associated with historic Middle Eastern cities.

Danica Kus

Upon entering the galleries, visitors encounter exquisite high-definition video, projected from floor to ceiling directly on the museum’s slanted walls, that beautifully captures Qatar’s sand dunes, night skies, and desert landscapes. The video serves as a backdrop to a display bench with a handful of birds and mammals, including a honey badger, a greater hoopoe-lark, and a lesser kestrel, which represent three desert ecotypes found in the region. Most impressive is the herd of Arabian oryx, Qatar’s national animal, which the country helped return from the brink of extinction through captive breeding programs.

Moving from desert creatures to the nomadic people known as the Bedouin, the bold geometric patterns of the traditional sadu-woven textiles take center stage. These fabrics form the walls and ceiling of Bedouin tents and provide ornate adornments for humans and camels alike. The simplicity of the weaving tools—drop spindles and basic floor looms, with a tensioning device formed from a goat horn—contrasts with the complexity of the patterns created. Children can learn the over-under-over-under rhythm of weaving in an associated family room using sadu-printed strips.

Danica Kus

Images of diverse and striking woven patterns escort visitors down the broad staircase as they exit the desert life galleries for an exhibit dedicated to the coast. One masterpiece of the collection is the Baroda Carpet, which emblemizes the importance of trade and pearl diving in early coastal towns. Displayed in the center of a gorgeous exhibit of pearl tiaras, earrings, and necklaces, the carpet was commissioned in the 1860s to honor the grave of the Prophet Mohammed. It is encrusted with precious stones and an estimated 1.5 million seed pearls, all obtained through the toil of pearl divers in the Gulf.

In Nafas (Breath), a film commissioned from famed director Mira Nair, visitors experience the intensity of diving for pearls. Before the discovery of oil, Qatari men had to leave wives and family for months at a time as they voyaged to rich pearl beds, where they free-dove to 25 m in the quest for pearls. Harrowing though the livelihood was, it was once a critical source of income.

Danica Kus

With the discovery and development of oil in the mid-1900s—the focus of the final galleries—came incredible change and growth. A scale model of Doha illuminates how the city has grown from a mere crossroads to a city of well over a million inhabitants. Commonplace glass jars from only 100 years ago (excavated in Doha) are displayed alongside ancient arrowheads and potshards in the archaeological gallery, making the turn of the 20th century feel distant indeed in this rapidly changing and growing society.

Qatar is preparing for further change as it seeks to move from a petroleum-based to a knowledge-based economy. Visitors see evidence for this just beneath the museum’s surface. The art films that form the backbone of the museum are all produced locally by the Doha Film Institute, and the country’s focus on educating the next generation is evident in six fabulous children’s rooms.

Danica Kus

Exhibit information is presented in Arabic and in English, and the opening attracted an eclectic set of international elites, including French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, renowned artist Jeff Koons, and pop culture icon Victoria Beckham, suggesting that the museum will serve as an effective vehicle for the country to engage with a global audience. One could, however, wish for a more nuanced conversation about the tension between Qatar’s desire to preserve the natural environment versus its rapid development of land and its reliance on fossil fuels for income and lifestyle.

Nonetheless, visitors will leave the NMoQ with a deep appreciation for the Qatari land, the resilience of its people, and the richness of its heritage. For those who can’t visit in person, or for visitors who want a richer experience, Thames & Hudson will publish a companion book as well as a museum guide later this year (1, 2). Visitors and readers alike will feel the duality of a country maintaining a strong connection to its past as it prepares for the future, where it is determined to maintain an independent position on the global stage.

References

  1. P. Jodidio, National Museum of Qatar (Thames & Hudson, 2019).

  2. Museum of Qatar, National Museum of Qatar: Museum Guide (Thames & Hudson, 2019).

About the author

The author is at the Department of Pre-medical Education, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, Doha, Qatar.