We meet the people behind the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, to find out more about the rich collection of art and artifacts, what they represent, and what they mean to the people of Qatar and the Middle East.
Meet the People Behind the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha
“The objects on display represent a cross-cultural history of civilizations,” Qatari national Abdullah Al Najar, the CEO of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha tells us when we meet him in the grand atrium of the museum.
“The Museum of Islamic Art has become a hub and a bridge to different modern cultures and civilizations,” Al Najar tells us proudly.
Al Najar, whose background is not in culture or heritage, but in engineering and management (he was responsible for some of Doha’s mega-sporting events, including the Asian Games), says he took on the CEO role to start a new journey, personally and professionally.
His mission was to oversee the development of a museum and collection of international standing to fulfil the vision of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to develop Doha as a key international cultural destination in the Islamic world.
“Part of our aim in developing awareness about the Museum is to show people that Islamic art has affected many civilizations in its long history,” Al Najar reveals.
“It’s our duty to show that Islam is not only a religion, but a culture, and that Islamic art has had influences that stretch to science, mathematics and astronomy, and this is evident in our rich collection.”
Michelle Walton, an American specialist in ancient and medieval glass, is head of research and one of the museum’s two curators. Walton sees the development and display of the collection as an ongoing process “much like the growth of a living entity.”
“No one should ever accept the impression a museum is merely to put pretty objects in glass boxes, end of project, finished,” Walton tells us.
“The collection must continue to develop, the objects continually preserved and researched, the community educated in an interesting and entertaining fashion — the work for a museum should be never-ending,” she says. “If any of these aspects are ignored and the work stopped, the spirit of the museum dies and it becomes a crypt.”
One of Walton’s jobs is to continually evaluate and envisage the collection, determining which aspects can be improved upon – “the goal being to achieve the most complete picture of Islamic art,” Walton explains.
“We are rich in material from the Mamluk Dynasty, Egypt and Syria from the 13th to 16th centuries, for example, but could enhance our collection with more material from Morocco and early Andalucía,” she admits. “We excel in our overall collection of textiles and ceramics, but could benefit from more woodwork.”
Walton sees her role as a curator to be a bit like a writer or film director, thinking up a concept and a message and developing a story to successfully convey ideas to audiences.
“The exhibitions are developed by choosing the appropriate artifacts that best embody the story. The museum is not an Islamic museum, but a museum of Islamic Art; the art being an expression of many cultures, people and ideas,” she says.
“Not everyone will agree with those ideas, but this is very valuable. One of the main goals in displaying art is to inspire dialogue, to educate… hopefully in an entertaining or memorable way,” Walton explains.
“Each artifact reveals a story about the people who created and used the object,” she elaborates. “These stories are certainly the foundation in deciphering past cultures, but they are also instrumental in discovering about ourselves.”
In addition to her research and curatorial duties, Walton can also be credited with training a talented team of bright young Qatari docents to guide visitors around the galleries.
Mohamed Khamis Moftah, 25, who has a mass communications degree, trained at Qatar TV as a reporter before giving up his television career to train as a docent.
After five months of comprehensive training which involved intensive study in art history, the history of the Islamic world and tour guiding, Moftah is now one of the museum’s star guides.
Moftah had led more than 100 tours when we met him, sometimes up to eight tours a day, and had become the go-to guy when VIPs visit, touring every level of dignitary around the museum’s galleries, right up to President.
“I feel like I live among these objects, like I am living history. I love this job,” he confides. “But it makes me sad to know what people think about Islam due to politics.”
“In the Islamic world we created maps and tools for astronomy, geometry, and science,” Moftah tells us. “Most people, even Muslims – even Qataris – have no idea about this.”
“They don’t know about all these beautiful things, and how the many different cultures joined together under Islam, from Spain to China. It makes me proud when people come here and I can show them and teach them about these things,” Moftah says.
Docent Salma Mohamed Ali, 21, agrees. “I feel very proud to be working here. My family are also very proud of me working at the museum.”
In high school I never thought I would be here, but now this is the only place I want to be,” says Ali. “I live to be able to come here each day and show people that Islam has such a rich artistic heritage.”
Michelle Walton may not be a Qatari but she’s just as proud of the museum and her work there.
“It is humbling to be responsible for such a legacy. To be honest, the picture is even larger than Islamic heritage: this is the heritage of the human race.”
Museum of Islamic Art in Doha