The Business Year

Manal Ataya

UAE, SHARJAH - Tourism

Night at the Museum

Director General, Sharjah Museums Department (SMD)


Manal Ataya is the Director-General of the Sharjah Museums Department, which manages 16 museums in the Emirate of Sharjah. The current museum offering covers Islamic culture and history, contemporary art, heritage, maritime history, archaeology, science, natural history, and children’s learning. Ataya currently serves on the board of the College of Fine Arts, University of Sharjah and for ICCROM-ATHAR, the regional center for cultural heritage preservation in the Arab region. She holds a BA in studio art and communication studies and a graduate degree in museum studies from the US. She is a Clore fellow, having completed the cultural leadership program in the UK in 2011.

TBY talks to Manal Ataya, Director General of the Sharjah Museums Department (SMD), on cooperating on international exhibits, its educational festivals, and the challenge to ensure that museums are accessible to all.

How does the department work to preserve and promote cultural heritage?

Following the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, we preserve and promote cultural heritage through permanent displays and temporary exhibitions, our annual program for children and families, and various activities such as workshops, seminars, and lectures. Each museum initiative is designed to incorporate the full range of activities and can be both historical—or tradition-focused—or dedicated to current issues such as environment and ecology, which have an impact on our cultural heritage.

Do you partner with any international organizations to exhibit items from abroad?

At the moment, we are cooperating on an international exhibition with the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. It has a wonderful historical textile collection and we seek to bring a unique selection to Sharjah. At the same time, we have just been invited to Belgrade to look at museums there, so there might be something that we will bring from that part of the world in the near future. In general, SMD has collaborated with international museums since its establishment, and such intercultural dialog is an integral part of our work.

What are some of the festivals the department has managed?

We recently had a successful Aquarium Festival that focused on the environment and ecological issues. Apart from performances, music, and food, it exhibited artwork made from trash that was salvaged from the sea. We also just completed our Science Carnival, sponsored by the Mohammed bin Rashid Smart Learning Program in Dubai. We have special celebrations dedicated to international days, such as Autism Awareness Day and Earth Hour. On World Turtle Day we released rescued turtles from our aquarium to highlight the importance of the conservation of turtles, particularly those close to becoming extinct. In the UAE, we have the Hawksbill turtle, whose environment is being threatened by poor waste management and construction developments on the coast. We find many turtles with garbage stuck on their shells, limiting their ability to swim, or stuck in fishing nets. We take care of them and make sure they are healthy before releasing them back into the ocean.

What are your goals and priorities for the year ahead?

Our priorities are to always keep moving forward with the best services we can provide, and we want to ensure we are in line with the strategic objectives of the Emirate of Sharjah as a whole. The most important thing for us is access to our museums, and not just physical access but intellectual access, so that people are really able to enjoy what we have to offer. We are always trying to find ways for people to engage with our museums and our collections and for them to enjoy a day in our museum without feeling they do not belong here or that it is too difficult to understand. In that respect, we even provide Braille for blind visitors in some of our venues. We have also been involved in many projects including sign language courses for our guides. Providing appropriate services remains a challenge, because every year one realizes that there are more and more issues related to access to museums. Sometimes it is finances, so we have to think about promoting our museum through free days or special promotions. From an intellectual point of view, one needs to make sure that more difficult topics, such as physics, for example, are made easier for people to understand and find ways to demonstrate concepts so visitors do not always have to learn by reading. Then it is necessary to think about people who cannot see and how they might interact with the objects, or people who cannot hear well. There are many different ways that people can interact with things and understand them, and it is important to constantly improve on this.



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