Collector’s Items


As tourist attractions go, it is hard to beat. The domed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) was famously designed by Chinese-American I.M. Pei as a contemporary re-working of Cairo’s Mamluk-era […]

As tourist attractions go, it is hard to beat. The domed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) was famously designed by Chinese-American I.M. Pei as a contemporary re-working of Cairo’s Mamluk-era Ibn Tulun mosque, and since its opening in 2008 has drawn international acclaim. Breathtaking in scale, the imposing building—and its waterfront setting—is nothing short of spectacular. MIA houses a unique collection of Islamic art, from inscribed Korans to jeweled daggers from the Moghul Empire and still-vibrant Umayyad ceramics of exquisite detail. The collection is the most comprehensive available of the region’s art and cultural importance. Visitors from neighboring Gulf states and beyond, flock to the museum, which is for many one of the foremost reasons to visit Qatar.

In a bid to win yet more publicity, MIA has curated ambitious international exhibitions in recent years including Cai Guo-Qiang’s evocative exploration (now at the Arab Museum of Modern Art, or Mathaf) of the ancient links between China and the Gulf—a highly original journey along the maritime Silk Road. And the museum brought American sculptor Richard Serra’s magnificent iron towers to a desert setting. These are shows that engage with the local culture while producing an exchange with those far away and often unexpected.

Mathaf is MIA’s edgier sister museum and is devoted to contemporary art, workshops, and installations. The museum, a serious academic venture, is pushing new boundaries for arts studies in the Middle East and is already considered vital to the region, a lung for creativity and education through awareness of history. Meanwhile the long-planned National Museum of Qatar, to be housed in an innovative sequence of interlocking pearls, is on schedule to open its doors in 2016. And the Orientalist Museum, currently of no fixed abode, is the only institution of its kind anywhere in the world, devoted—as its name suggests—to exhibiting Oriental art stretching back to the early 16th Century, and to exploring East-West relations through this prism.

Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), the governing body that oversees the running of all the museums and their development, is a major player on the international art stage. Under the leadership of HE Sheikha Al Mayassa Al Thani, QMA’s chairman and sister of the Emir, the organization is noted for its bold and confident approach. Qatar Museums is continuing to source art and artifacts at a truly extraordinary rate. Sheikha Al Mayassa herself is one of the most prominent collectors on the world art scene in recent years acquiring not only a Middle East art collection but also a very international one, driven by her belief that “Art—even controversial art—can unlock communication between diverse nations, peoples, and histories.” Last year Sheikha Al Mayassa purchased one of the art world’s most prized lots: a $120 million triptych by Francis Bacon.

Yet first and foremost the focus of QMA remains Arab, and to some extent Persian, art. This is in contrast to the approach of neighboring Abu Dhabi, for example, where franchises of Western galleries such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim are a means to exhibit Western art in the Middle East.

These home-grown museums are, then, a boon to Qatar’s tourism industry, and figures show that 2013 was the country’s best year yet—“A turning point,” according to Hassan al-Ibrahim, Qatar Tourism Authority’s Director of Strategy—with visitor numbers up 8.3% to 1.3 million. The regional media coverage of Doha’s museums has undoubtedly led to a rise in the numbers visiting from Gulf states. The longer-term target is to attract 7.4 million tourists a year by 2030, and the country’s cultural landscape is seen as central to this ambition.

More profoundly, yet building on the rise in visitor numbers, lies the aim of transforming Qatar into a cultural, educational, and information economy. Qatar has long looked beyond its shores to fulfill its ambitions and to promote an image of the region that is engaging and innovative. Through its extraordinary program of museum openings, QMA is at the forefront of that vision—an embrace of the past that should, simultaneously, stand the country in good stead for the future.

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