The value of cultural institutions is often ignored, particularly in rapidly growing economies, because of the intangible benefits they bring. Qatar, however, has proudly declared its ambitions of becoming the most important cultural hub in the Gulf and has accordingly allocated significant resources to collect, preserve and display its cultural heritage. The royal family’s patronage of Islamic art culminated in the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008.
SMITHSONIAN IN THE DESERT: Described as the Smithsonian in the desert, the museum was designed by I M Pei, the Chinese-American architect responsible for the Louvre’s iconic glass pyramid in Paris, and garnered attention for its striking design and for the extensive collection housed within it. The building, which is located on an island created for this specific purpose just off the city’s waterfront corniche, combines elements of Islamic architecture and modern cubism. The 41,000 sq feet of galleries set around a central atrium display a major collection of Islamic glass, carpets, Korans, manuscripts and miniatures. Since then, Qatar has also opened the doors to the country’s first museum of modern art, which is located in a former school on the Qatar Foundation’s Education City campus. The contents of Mathaf: Arab Museum for Modern Art, as it is called ( mathaf is the Arabic word for museum), stands in sharp contrast to the Museum of Islamic Art. The concept came to fruition when the Qatar Museums Authority and the Qatar Foundation partnered to adopt and display 6000 pieces of modern and contemporary art donated by the ruling family. Costing an estimated $10.5m to build, the museum has sought to showcase an Arab perspective on modern art through the creation of a digital museum in a physical space. The museum has also offered various programmes that could facilitate research and dialogue within the arts. The National Museum of Qatar, the country’s third major museum, is currently under construction in the centre of Doha, and is expected to open in 2016. The museum follows the path of the Museum of Islamic Art with a building designed by Jean Nouvel. Inspired by the rose-shaped salt crystals found in the desert, the museum features a series of interlocking white discs that create sufficient space for galleries, a 220-seat auditorium, and a research centre. Furthermore, the Doha Fire Station, originally built in 1982 as a headquarters for Qatar Civil Defence, reopened as an artists’ hub in March 2015. The project will host residencies for locally based and international artists. Other museums under development include the Orientalist Museum, the Children’s Museum and the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympics and Sports Museum.
STRATEGIC PRIORITIES: The Qatar Museums Authority was established in 2005 to lead efforts to develop and manage museums in Qatar. Building on its progress over the last decade, the government agency unveiled a complete rebranding strategy in 2014 that included changing its name to Qatar Museums (QM). The new strategy marked a shift from simply managing Qatar’s museums to serving as a “cultural instigator” to “develop, promote and sustain the cultural sector in Qatar at the highest standards”. A new logo that features a colourful geometrical design symbolises the modern aspirations of the agency.
In line with the Qatar National Vision 2030, Qatar Museum’s strategic priorities include: taking Qatar’s museums beyond four walls; nurturing emerging talent; and creating a platform for Qatar’s voice. These priorities point to an effort to develop Qatar’s own cultural community, instead of simply displaying art from outside. For example, QM has opened the QM Gallery Katara, a venue for public art projects – a major focus for QM – located in Katara Cultural Village. Similarly, the Al Riwaq Exhibition Space has hosted prominent international artists including Damien Hirst, but also provides a venue for local exhibitions. As a result, meeting QM’s strategic goals will help contribute to Qatar’s overall development strategy, while also serving as a platform for growth in its tourism industry.