Growing up in Dubai, amid a time of rapid urban, social and cultural transformation, Manal Ataya remembers being struck early in life by the realisation that “there are collective memories and individual memories, and culture is the way to preserve these.” This idea led her, eventually, to a graduate programme in Museum Studies at Harvard University and, when she returned to the Emirates in 2004, good timing and serendipity led her to Sharjah.
She secured a role at the helm of a new office with a loose brief considering the place of museums in the Emirate. This was the beginning of an unknown future, “we began with an office of five people, unsure what would lie ahead, but committed to a six-month process of research and development. We produced a report that became the foundation of the future department – the rest, as they say, is history!” In hindsight, it’s clear that what might have initially seemed to be a speculative scope was carefully designed to open up to a project that was patient, organic and responsive.
Research-driven, it was the antithesis of grandiose masterplans that conjure something from nothing; attentive to the past and present, it has today evolved into a large network of programmes and entities across the Emirate. Ataya knows this approach as absolutely characteristic of His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah and the visionary behind the museums that fall under her jurisdiction in her capacity as Director-General of the Sharjah Museums Authority. “He is always thoughtful in his process, dedicated to finding ways to do things that will be foundational, solid and robust, and which will continue for years to come,” she says.
An exterior view of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation
The museums derive much of their character from Sharjah – many are housed in restored houses and traditional buildings and some document the particular history of the Emirate as major port and crossroads of cultures. But, more than that, they are made possible by the distinctive dedication of HH Sheikh Dr Sultan, who Ataya feels privileged to have worked alongside for 15 years. “What Sharjah has been doing is absolutely unique to its nature and its history,” she says, “a major part of that is the passion of his highness – he is a polymath who holds two PhDs in history and political geography of the Gulf, he is a recognised historian who has published over 30 books”.
She speaks with reverence and deep affection about her mentor, “for me, admiration is not about celebrity – inspiration can only come from those you really know. In the day-to-day, you really experience someone acting with integrity. Working and learning from a mentor you witness consistency, and you see them embodying the qualities they want to instil in you,” she explains. It is clear his influence far transcends her career, shaping her life outlook and philosophy, “it was early in my career that he gave me a piece of advice that has always stayed with me, he told me: ‘Work hard, listen, absorb everything you can, keep learning,’” she recounts. This atmosphere of learning suffuses the museums and their work.
An interior view of Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation
This commitment to mentorship has informed Ataya’s approach with her team, as well as towards the audiences of the museum. She is particularly attentive to the women around her, conscious of challenges that may compromise entry into the workplace or even opportunities to participate in culture. However, she feels the UAE are innovators in this regard and is proud of the concerted efforts Sharjah and the Museums Authority are making to minimise such barriers. These efforts also extend to programming, with spaces being opened up for community activities, including women’s support groups and family groups.
These broad efforts to engage new audiences make a powerful statement that culture is for the many myriad populations of Sharjah. The message is clear and urgent: everyone is ‘worthy’ of the museum experience. It is a belief held so firmly that the authority takes the experience to special needs centres, hospitals and rehabilitation centres in prisons. One innovation sees the museum travel to schools in a specially adapted bus, housing replicas of key pieces from the collection. By the end of this year, it’s estimated some 8,000 children will have encountered the history of the region in this hands-on way.
Louay Kayyali - Ahzan (Sorrows), 1970. Modern Arab Collection
Where some would decry this dilution of the ‘aura’ of the original artefact, the decentralisation of the traditional museum experience, the commitment to accessibility becomes something of a balancing act alongside a dedication to rigorous historical and academic excellence. For Ataya, these are not incompatible aims, but instead further evidence of potential universality. “Museums are a way of life,” she enthuses, resolute on the paramount importance of accessibility, “the UN charter stating that participation in culture is a fundamental right has always stayed with me, it is a guiding principle in my work”.
Much more than a luxury, Ataya is convinced that access is especially pertinent at this time, across the Arab world. “There is a very clear and devastating connection,” she observes, “when people want to take advantage of marginalised individuals, when they want to have power over them, they look at ways of controlling access to learning and culture. Cultural sites can have greater significance than they’re often given credit for,” she says, “look to Syria, the reopening of the Damascus National Museum in 2018 was a moment of huge pride. Instances like this affirm my long-held belief that museums are not just places for fun or learning, they are very important civic spaces that can play a huge role in their societies. They can be safe spaces, spaces for hope, spaces that can bring a community together.”
Images courtesy of Sharjah Art Museum
From Harper's Bazaar Arabia Art Winter 2019 issue